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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Prommers ruin the Proms

By Norman Lebrecht / August 6, 2003

Arriving 80 minutes early at the Royal Albert Hall, I applied an orthnithologist's eye to the preparatory rituals of the Prommers, those hardy perennials who stand up throughout the summer concert season (as distinct from weaker breeds who slump in upholstered tip-ups).

Prommers are a motley lot in drab plumage. They do not appear to belong to the young, ethnic-minority and underprivileged classes that the BBC wants to attract. Nor are they musical virgins, eager to be initiated in the joys of western civilisation by the benevolent patronage of a public-funded cultural organisation.

On the contrary, judging by their overheard chatter, Prommers are perma-fixed in their musical prejudices and hissingly intolerant of newcomers who commit the dreadful faux pas of clapping between the movements of a symphony or concerto. Intent on their hobby, they are the kind of creature you might see on a Sunday morning at a steam railway depot, or perhaps in the administrative office of a remote Salvation Army station.

Their rituals are unchanging. Hours before each concert they mill around the dust-choked construction area behind the RAH. At the first spots of rain they migrate beneath the hall's awnings. When the rear doors are unlocked by a red-coated flunkey - the RAH is the last public utility in levelled-down Blairland to retain smartly outfitted ushers - they parade with remarkable decorum to fixed, though unmarked places in the belly of the hall.

An invisible hierarchy prevails. By some means, whether by queuing longest or attending most nights in the week, certain internally recognised leaders of the flock take up uncontested positions at the brass front rail of the arena, within spit-shot of the orchestra. A second group, less exalted, occupies the bank of seats around the central fountain. The rest of the Prommers stand unsupported by a wall or furniture for upwards of an hour at a time, a form of torture that is banned by the United Nations Human Rights Convention. The summer heat, intensified by the crush of several hundred pungent bodies, can be intolerable -even in the hall's new air-conditioning system.

So why do they do it? Not for lack of money, nor (I believe) primarily for love of music. Prommers purchase a £160 season ticket which gives them admission to the arena for 73 concerts over eight weeks. That sounds a better deal than it really is. In between the limelight performances are many concerts which are made of BBC polyfilla and played without much brio. Attending the lot is an unmusical act. Serious music lovers browse the Proms brochure and select the best, saving money and avoiding many nights of mediocrity.

But Prommers are not motivated by economy or excellence. Their instinct is tribal and seasonal, immune to reason. It is a form of masochism that is endemic to summer music festivals. Rich Americans pay fortunes each summer to sit on hard benches at Bayreuth for five hours at a stretch and have their intelligence insulted by Wolfgang Wagner's latest nihilist-chic producer.

At Bregenz, in Austria, patrons are warned to bring insect repellent and not to yawn too widely for fear of ingesting a cloud of mosquitoes. At Savonlinna, in Finland, you can sit in an open courtyard in pouring rain while an orchestra plays in sodden clothes and singers sneeze between arias. At Aix-en-Provence, the heat is Vesuvian. In the Arena di Verona, the top rows require seat-belts for the vertiginous. Some of the cavernous fringe venues at Edinburgh would not be passed fit for food storage.

The festival spirit demands human sacrifice. If the music is good, worshippers feel rewarded. If not, they still return the following year. The sacrifice is not unique to classical music. At rock festivals, fans congratulate one another on 'surviving' the mud and slime. Early on Sunday morning, I saw thousands flocking to Lords three hours before the start of play, knowing that they would be lobster-broiled on sizzling bleachers while watching a cricket match that England were bound to lose. Where, you wonder, is the dividend?

The origin of these summer traditions is a primal herd instinct, the urge to join with others in a festive act. When asked in a 2001 BBC survey why they chose to stand, most Prommers (38%) replied 'because of who I was with.' Others cited the 'atmosphere'. These are herd reactions, innocent as chewing cud. But mass ritual can turn sinister when combined with feats of endurance that engender a sense of superiority - of being part of an elite that embraces pain. The Prommers have more in common than they might acknowledge with the Shi'ites of Iran who whip themselves with chains until the blood flows. In political terms, a sense of superiority bred by common or caste suffering is the foundation of fascism. The classic text on this phenomenon is Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power.

Now I am not suggesting that boring old Prommers manifest any form of totalitarian tendency. They are, to all appearances, uninspiringly decent, law-abiding individuals whose only excess is to bawl silly chants into the BBC's ever-live microphones. Conductors welcome their English eccentricity as an antidote to the overcaution that is killing their art. On the Last Night of the Proms they cheerlead a carnival atmosphere.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding their transparent commitment, the Prommers are becoming detrimental to the populuist purpose of the Proms. The unpublished 2001 BBC survey reveals a more upbeat demographic than the one I observed -60% of Prommers were supposedly under the age of 35, 42% were women, 40% lived outside London. But the survey does not distinguish between the hard core of season-ticket Prommers and the casual rush of one-offs, who are admitted 15 minutes before each concert if space permits.

It is the phalanx 525 every-nighters who constitute the problem. They form an elite at the heart of the Proms, an aging praetorian guard whose dominance of the arena actively deters the young and curious. They brandish resentment at the seated majority and squatters' rights at the BBC, asserting a spurious ownership of 'their' Proms.

It is about time the BBC got a grip and culled these cuckoos in its nest. All it needs to do is to restrict the sale of half its season tickets to the under-30s, a reform that would instantly rejuvenate the standing mob and abolish some of its sillier customs. The Prommers are becoming a tiresome nuisance, an impediment to the admirably populist mission of this largest and most engaging of music festivals. They have had a good run. Let them give way to humbler, younger and needier seekers of music on a summer's night.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001