It is very easy for a Prommer – by which I mean anyone who actually stands up throughout a Proms concert – to judge the quality of a performance.
Just as certain down-home country folk claim to be able to forecast a cold snap by the swelling of their right knee, so a Prommer knows he or she has just stood through a less-than-exemplary concert by the simultaneous aching of their feet, legs, lower back and shoulders. Not to mention the swelling in their right knee.
These are just the symptoms of standing up for a long time, of course, and not really unique to Promdom. I used to have a summer job working behind an ice-cream counter – a cruel form of child labour that, as well as acting as an extremely effective form of aversion therapy for ice-cream sufferers, presented me with daily opportunities to assume and maintain an upright stress position. Eight hours on your feet and you’d better learn coping techniques, or you’ll crack.
Anyway, the symptoms of standing up for any length of time are present no matter how good a concert is. It’s just that, in the very special concerts, you don’t feel anything.
Last night’s Prom featured Bernard Haitink conducting Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. My favourite conductor and my favourite symphony, yes, but part of me was dreading the occasion. It’s a 90-minute-long symphony, emotionally as well as physically draining in a halfway-decent performance. Plus there’s no interval, so no scope for a quick sit down before the second half. Plus I’d been for a run in the morning so my legs were killing me even before the concert began.
Suffice to say, once the music started I didn’t feel a thing. Haitink’s was a fragile, fragmentary performance, befitting of an 80-year-old man who has just spent the last six weeks or so recovering from back surgery.
This was his first concert since early May, and his only concert until September, but I guess he just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to perform this very special music in front of the world’s most devoted audience.
To be honest he looked a bit unsteady by the end of it, but then again who wouldn’t? It was a beautiful performance, the London Symphony Orchestra playing to the full extent of their considerable ability for a man they clearly respect and adore. The strings in the Adagio finale had an astonishing richness – but it was restrained, withdrawn even.
There was nothing false or maudlin here, no bogus heartstring pulling, no unnecessary drawing out of the disintegrating final pages. Consequently it was not nearly as draining as it might have been – neither emotionally nor physically.
Thanks Bernie. My feet, legs, lower back, shoulders – and even my right knee – all greatly appreciate it.
Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance music writer, critic, and a contributor to The Guardian. He has been a fervent Prommer for the last six years, and can be found every summer in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall arena, looking slightly faint...
Main images: Chris Christodoulou