This is my piece on the Proms that the Standard was going to run but in its wisdom chose not to..
This week the BBC Proms launches a new season of mouth watering concerts with some of the biggest names in the classical world. It’s a pity then that the venue – the Royal Albert Hall – does not match up to the quality of the music making. So says Mathew Tucker who says it's time to think the unthinkable about the world’s greatest music festival.
The Proms are special. I still remember the transformative effect my first visit to the Royal Albert Hall had on me back in 1982. A mate and I travelled up from Sussex to hear the Philharmonia and the pianist Yefim Bronfman play Bartok’s 2nd Piano Concerto. Back then we had time to spend most of the day queuing for the all standing arena and we were rewarded with places right at the front. So close were we to the stage that we got the giggles watching Bronfman’s facial contortions as he sprinted towards the end of the concerto. Laughter aside, I was bowled over by what I heard – the piano’s opening run followed by the brass fanfare convinced me I should go to music college.
Since then I have made a point of clocking into the Proms every summer. The staggering range of concerts from the world’s finest bands, conductors, soloists and singers night after night is probably one of the best reasons for living in the UK.
These days though I’m far more likely to listen to the Proms on the radio than I am hearing them in the flesh. There are practical reasons for this but mainly it’s because I don’t think the Prom’s home, the Royal Albert Hall, is a good enough venue. I have always tried to put my misgivings about the building to one side by making a virtue of the Albert Hall’s iconic status. But I’ve traipsed over to West London on too many occasions only to hear music die in the hall’s cavernous space before it has a chance to make an impact on the audience. Instead of leaving uplifted, I make the lonely trek back to South Kensington tube feeling frustrated, confident in the knowledge that in any other concert hall the music would have been served so much better.
Don’t get me wrong, for certain things the RAH is perfect. Raymond Gubbay’s operas make magnificent use of the hall’s interior, and its Victorian opulence really suits the glamour of the Classical Brits. Rightly or wrongly both these events are amplified so there’s no danger of missing anything (even if you want to). But for classical music served up acoustically like it is at the Proms, the building is simply not fit for purpose.
The usual retort about the RAH’s acoustical short comings is that it depends on where you stand or sit. If you are lucky enough to get a decent spot in the arena the power of the music can be overwhelming (as I can testify). And I can’t think of anything more serene than lying in the gallery that runs round the top of the dome with choral music wafting up from below. So the RAH does have its benefits but for the majority of the audience the sound quality is too hit and miss and that, for the world’s greatest music festival, is nothing short of shameful.
So what am I proposing? Of course in some far off utopia the ideal would be for a purpose built concert hall for the Proms, perhaps with the Prommers themselves raising some of the cash and co-owning the venue with whoever else is able to stump up the money. But that’s a pipe dream, especially in the current financial climate. No, my solution is quite simple. We swap the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Festival Hall. Here’s why.
Its central location next to the River Thames is second to none with easy links to and from London. There are things to do before and after concerts with shops, restaurants, art galleries and theatres on the doorstep (not to mention the London Eye).
But the best reason is the Royal Festival Hall and the rest of the Southbank Centre itself. Here you have one of the most well-defined and exciting cultural centres on the planet. Just imagine how well the Proms with all its increasing ambitions and variety would utilise the different venues at the Southbank – the Festival Hall for the main concerts, the Queen Elizabeth Hall for late night stuff, the Purcell Room for chamber music. Then there are all of the Festival Hall’s other spaces perfect for workshops, free music and talks. And let’s not also forget the areas outside the building that brim with possibilities.
I can already hear opponents of this idea sharpening their knives. Haven’t you over looked something? Can you actually stand – or should I say Prom – in the Festival Hall? Well no, you can’t, at least not at the moment. But assuming the BBC continues to underwrite the event, there’s no reason to believe ticket prices would be any less of a bargain. There may be fewer available – the RFH’s capacity is 2500 compared to the RAH’s 5550 - but apart from appearances by the likes of the Berlin Philharmoniker and the Last Night of the Proms, it’s still a rare thing to see the Royal Albert Hall bursting at the seams. Surely the Festival Hall’s superior acoustic is a price worth paying for some reduction in seats (which, incidentally, are far more comfortable). For those unable to get into the blockbuster events it would still be possible to experience and savour the occasion on a big screen in the Festival Hall’s ballroom. It works at Wimbledon, why not at the Proms?
But the Proms and the Royal Albert Hall are so intertwined, it’s become a tradition say RAH loyalists. Yet the Proms began life at the Queen’s Hall in 1895 followed by a brief residency at the Bedford Corn Exchange during the Second World War before the Royal Albert Hall became the regular fixture. So it’s not a relationship set in stone. And if tradition is so important, the Royal Festival Hall was the centrepiece of that most inclusive event of them all, the 1951 Festival of Britain which brought music and arts into the lives of ordinary people. This legacy far better represents the Proms democratic ethos than the quaint Victoriana of the Royal Albert Hall.
I believe it’s time to drop our sentimental attachment to the Royal Albert Hall and move the Proms Eastwards to London’s South Bank where its long-term future should lie. Focused in one place in the heart of the capital would give the organisers many more opportunities to expand the Proms remit and encourage a far greater – and diverse – audience with classical music still at the very core of things. Best of all, the music would sound better. And that for me is what the Proms are all about, hearing music.