What I said back then:
Look at the date. It’s in the future. Back then, that is.
What I think now:
I wanted to try to contextualise the Proms a little more, to explain a little how much they meant to me while I was able to attend, and what exactly it is that changes my musical understanding simply by being in a crowd of like-minded individuals, listening to music while ignoring my aching calves.
July 27th, 2003. It’s a Sunday, so I might have shown up at almost any point in the afternoon, but given that it’s not likely to be sold out, I’m guessing I got to the queue around 5.30. I almost certainly drove in, since parking is free around the Albert Hall on Sunday evenings (in fact, I think it’s free all day Sunday at this point. I doubt that it still is.) The queue is a significant part of the enjoyment of the evening; you might be in line with friends; you might meet someone who knows the composer or conductor; you might meet family members coming to cheer on a performer; you might equally well bring a book and a Marks and Spencer sandwich and just sit there, on the steps or along Prince Consort Road, and watch the world go by. I have had all of those experiences, and cannot elevate one above the others – whatever happens works for that particular evening.
You might even, as I once was, be interviewed for the radio about that evening’s conductor. My contribution was not used, I know, because I didn’t actually know who that evening’s conductor was. (Some evenings you go to see someone specific; some you go to see a particular work; some you go because you are able to go)
That evening was themed – not a particularly common experience for the Proms, although, of course, programmes are designed so that they flow and make sense together, but an actual theme is less common. The theme is mourning, and the reason I was so keen to see it was the conductor – John Adams, one of the foremost living composers, conducting three works I am vaguely familiar with and ending the evening with the UK premiere of his work written in response to the events of 9/11.
The first piece is one of those Haydn symphonies I was so exercised about back there. I’d never heard it before, and I remember enjoying it perfectly well. It is called the ‘Trauersinfonie’, or ‘Mourning Symphony’, setting the tone for the evening without being gloomy or ponderous. It’s perfectly fine, and enjoyable, but it is instantly sidelined in my memory by what comes next.
Now, I love a Piano Concerto. I’d say that, after the long-form symphony, they are my favourite expression of the classical style. However, I had never heard Bartok No.3, written as he was dying (and indeed not quite finished by him), so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was, as they say, blown away by it. It instantly became one of my favourite pieces of music, thanks to a scintillating interpretation by both conductor and soloist. That’s why I love the Proms so much – new stuff which just becomes part of you.
After the interval, we are treated to some Copland – Quiet City, not a piece I knew well, and intended as a counterpoint to the finale. It worked well, but perhaps was just a little too optimistic given what came next.
The final piece is what we came for – Adams conducting his own ‘On the Transmigration of Souls’. It’s startling, partly electronic, partly on tape, inspired by, and partly about the passengers on those doomed aircraft, but also in a way about all of us and how we might face the end of our lives. I found it profoundly moving in places, and strangely optimistic; not a reaction I had expected. It’s hard to process new music sometimes, not because it’s impenetrable or innately ‘difficult’, but because, never having heard it before, you’re trying to comprehend what you’re hearing as you listen for themes and motifs. Not a problem I ever had with a Saxon song, I grant you.
We file into the night, uplifted as always by live music, and thoughtful – at least I am. Unusually, I have no music on in the car on the way home. Silence seems the appropriate response to what I’ve just seen, although I’ll be buying a copy of that Bartok in the morning…
Well, I certainly bought some Bartok. Indeed, it’s one of the few pieces I have more than one interpretation of; if you’re intrigued by it, try to find Marta Argerich’s version – it’s seriously impressive. I didn’t buy copies of any of the other pieces from that night, but that’s mainly because the Adams wasn’t available. It has since been released, and I ought to have a copy of it to go alongside my copy of ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine’, which has a whole other Proms story of its own, but since its mainly about how I seemed destined never to hear it, that is perhaps for another time.