Part 9: Milestones at the Proms

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What do marathon training and Harrison Birtwistle have in common? More than you might at first think, as Tristan Jakob-Hoff finds out

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My girlfriend, bless her, has me training for a marathon. Which in reality means that she is training for a marathon, while I am selflessly running a few metres behind her, puffing like a pregnant ox and struggling to keep up. Marathon training, you see, is all about what we runners call ‘the mental’. In order to stay focussed as mile after mile of road stretches out before you, you need something to keep your inspiration levels from flagging. My job, as my girlfriend’s training partner, is to keep her inspiration levels from flagging by valiantly allowing her to run rings around me.

I only mention this because this week marks the halfway point in the Proms season, and the feeling – much as when one hits the halfway mark during a long run – is a mix of relief and trepidation. Relief at having made it this far, and trepidation at the thought of having to ‘make it this far’ all over again. Thankfully, my inspiration levels remain buoyant thanks to last Friday’s outstanding concert, which, for me at least, was the clear highlight of the season-so-far.

Through some subconscious desire to exact vengeance for all that torturous training, I dragged my girlfriend along to hear Act II of Harrison Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus, one of the most ferociously complex operas ever written. Musically and dramatically unforgiving, the second act received its Proms premiere in a half-hearted ‘semi-staging’, which did little to clarify the drama but much to focus attention on the music.

The latter’s unremitting nature was cause for several walk-outs by those unable to stomach the nightmare/dream-world of Birtwistle’s (see right) unhinged imagination. A bit of a shame, given the concert was already rather ill-attended to begin with, but when Stravinsky is the least modern thing on the programme you can’t really expect a packed house.

At least my girlfriend enjoyed it. Well, I say ‘enjoyed’. ‘Endured’ perhaps is the better word. But endurance is what the Proms is all about – no matter how much you feel like giving up at the time, you just have to keep up a steady pace and focus on achieving that next milestone. As my girlfriend keeps telling me about running, and as I kept telling her about Birtwistle: what doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger.

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...
 
Image: Hanya Chala