What I said back then:
Well, everyone knows ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, and the Hoedown from ‘Rodeo’, and so on – and I came at him via ELP, as already mentioned. But in addition to all that, I have a specific memory of Copland music, and of the Albert Hall and the Proms, so this might be a good place to wax a little lyrical on the whole Henry Wood thing…
Like many people, I suspect, for years I equated the BBC Proms with the Last Night; all that flag waving and rabble-rousing. I don’t know when it finally got through to me that there was a lot more to it than that; but I know that for a long time I harboured a desire to go and Prom. And I can’t explain why it took so long for me to get round to it – even after we moved to the southeast, I somehow never quite managed it. But eventually – in about 1996, I got my act together sufficiently to buy some tickets, and go and sit down at some. And that in itself is a wonderful experience; the hall, while not the most acoustically perfect venue, is incredibly atmospheric, and the presence of the promenaders seems to both change the normal audience dynamic greatly for the better, and to inspire the performers. But sitting in the stalls, I wasn’t getting even half the picture. The next year, I thought I’d go and queue up – do it properly, and see what all the fuss is about. And it’s everything they say it is, and more. I can’t really adequately explain the joy of the Promenading experience; the camaraderie of the queue, the anticipation of the trek down all those stairs; the emergence into that vast arena from below; the mad desire to leap up on the stage and declaim something; the shuffling for position; the ritual audience declarations; the sheer sense of fun. And then on top of all that, you get world-class music for pennies – the grumbling at this year’s price hike to £4 was mostly good-humoured; we’re seeing some of the best performances in the world for £4…
And every time I’ve Prommed, I’ve discovered something new and wonderful. Sometimes it might be a performance which makes me hear a favourite piece of music in a new way; it might be a piece I’d previously thought impenetrable; it might be a soloist about to become a superstar. And sometimes it’s a combination of things which shifts the whole experience onto a higher plane. Prom 33 in the 2000 season is the best example. A late night Prom – in itself, a wonderful experience, like a sort of musical midnight feast – featuring the music of Aaron Copland; but not a single piece I was already familiar with. The London Sinfonietta, under Oliver Knussen; a wonderful atmosphere, and the centrepiece was the Clarinet Concerto, played by the award-winning young clarinettist Michael Collins. I enjoyed the other pieces that evening, but I was transported by the concerto. In that one evening, it went from being something I had never heard before to one of my favourite pieces of all time. I naturally went and bought a copy of it – the Benny Goodman performance, with Copland conducting – but whenever I hear it, I am transported to the Albert Hall on a warm summers evening, and I once again hear my musical horizons being flung open.
What I think now:
I wish I’d rewritten that last line, I really do.
Also, it occurs to me that I meant to say that Michael Collins was a former winner of the ‘Young Musician of the Year’, not that he was still particularly young (older than me, I think). None of which affects what I think about one of the most brilliant concerti ever written.
Interesting, though. The original pieces were written in random order, so the switch from more popular music to classical was never as clear. Here, it seems a little jarring. In truth, it was somewhere in between. I did tend to listen to Radio 3 more than any other on the way home from work, but that was a gradual process – I was still listening to plenty of amplified music as well; it was just leavened a bit more with large symphonies.
I also had been listening to and appreciating – or learning to appreciate – classical for all of the previous 20 years, it just doesn’t show up quite as clearly as I perhaps thought it did.
I have heard a couple of other versions, although none which grabbed me enough to make me want to replace or supplement my Benny Goodman version – Goodman thought himself not technically good enough to play the piece, despite it having been written for him, and his playing on it throughout is tense and full of danger – like a tightrope walker who genuinely is scared of heights. He pulls it off, of course; brilliantly so, but I’ve never heard a version by a classically-trained clarinettist which comes close to that version for raw energy and excitement.
I’m open to offers, though.