The First Night of the Proms

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Background to the Promenade Concerts

The Promenade Concerts comprise a fabulous feast of music provided annually by the BBC. They were started in 1895 by the manager of the newly built Queen's Hall in London; Robert Newman. His intention was to provide a series of concerts which would be more accessible to the general public by offering more popular programmes and keeping ticket prices low.

With this in mind he approached Henry Wood who had already made a name for himself as an organist, accompanist, vocal coach and conductor of choirs, orchestras and amateur opera companies. As Newman said:
'I am going to run nightly concerts to train the public in easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising standards until I have created a public for classical and modern music.'
Wood jumped at the chance and was given the permanent conductorship at Queens Hall. The series was known as Mr Robert Newman's Promenade Concerts and each concert lasted a generous three hours. The informal spirit was encouraged by keeping the ticket prices very low... one shilling (5p) for a single or a guinea (£1.05) for a season ticket... and eating, drinking and smoking were permitted, although patrons were asked not to strike matches during vocal numbers!

The series proved to be a great success, with the pattern established of performing the more serious items in the first half and more adventuous or new works appearing after the interval. Wagner nights and Beethoven nights were also introduced and new works encouraged, alongside the promotion of young, talented performers. By 1920 Wood had introduced to the Proms many of the leading composers of the day including Richard Strauss, Debussy, Rakhmaninov, Ravel and Vaughn Williams

During the First World War, all things German were discouraged, but Wood and Newman insisted that
'The greatest examples of Music and Art are world possessions and unassailable even by the prejudices of the hour.'

The Proms ran into financial problems in 1927 when the music publishers Chappell and Co withdrew their support, but the BBC had just established their charter to:
'Inform, educate and entertain.'
It was a natural occurance, therefore, that they would take over the Proms and the concerts were given by Sir Henry Wood and his Symphony Orchestra for three years until the formation of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930.

The Proms again hit problems during the Second World War due to the BBC being unable to offer support, and the Queen's Hall being gutted by bombing on 10th May 1941. The Proms transferred to The Royal Albert Hall, an impressive building opened in 1871. By 1944 the Proms had reached their 50th season and Henry Wood had reached 75. He conducted his last concert on 28th July and died three weeks later.

The Concerts continued after the war under the watchful eye of Malcolm Sargent, know as Flash Harry by his fans and orchestra members alike. (but only behind his back!) The programmes were extended, as were the performers... first to other orchestras from England and, in 1966, to guest orchestras from around the world. It was this openess to new music, new performers and the willingness to experiment with programmes which expanded the Proms from a fairly conservative endeavour into the international music festival it has become today.

1996 saw the introduction of Proms in the Park, Proms Chamber Music and the Proms Lecture, the latter being invaluable for music students! This year (2000) sees the start of the Poetry Proms, a new venture for a new millennium.

Ticket prices are still kept to an affordable price, the most popular tickets being the ones which allow the concert-goer into the arena or well of The Royal Albert Hall. Queuing is advisable for the more popular concerts, and be prepared to camp out in the street to gain entrance to the Last Night!

The First Night

This year the opening night was an exciting mix of musical periods and styles. There were over 1000 promenaders packed into the central well and 3000 plus in the seats. The programme kicked off, literally, with Aaron Copeland's 'Fanfare for the Common Man'; an exciting performance by The BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Colin Davis, sadly his last opening night. To quote Copeland
'It is very attractive to set down some sort of permanent statement about the way we feel, so that when it's all gone, people will be able to go to our art works to see what is was like to be alive in our time and place: 20th Century America'

This was followed by Toccata and Fugue in D minor by JS Bach. This was not the Organ solo which most people know, but the orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski which featured, to great effect, in the film 'Fantasia'.

Then came, for me anyway, the crowning performance. Evgeny Kissin, who made his first public appearance at the age of ten, gave a superb performance of the Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor by Serge Rakhmaninov.Now nearing 30, the performance was full of emotion and enthralled the audience, so much so that he played two encores; two preludes also by Rakhmaninov, the ones in G minor and Bb major.

After the interval, during which the BBC broadcast a fun musical quiz, the Orchestra was joined by The BBC Symphony Chorus and Singers and Simon Preston on the organ1.They plunged into the impressive Glagolitic Mass by Janacek. Of his own composition Janacek said:
'My mass will be quite different from those of other composers. I will show people how to talk to God.'
This mass is unusual in that it was not really written to be performed in church, but more as a celebration of man's relationship with his god. It owes a lot to the more orthodox form of the Christian Religion and boasts inspiring solos by the singers and the organist ( I can still hear the 32 foot Diapaison Pedal reverberating around the room!), as well as requiring virtuoso performances by members of the orchestra.

All in all this was a brilliant start to the year 2000 season of concerts, which ends on 9th September. You can find all the information you need about the Proms by visiting The Proms Site. If you get the opportunity, go and promenade. If not you can listen to all the concerts over the web!


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1I met him many years ago when he came to play concerts with my father, I think that he was Organist at St. Albans Abbey for some time

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