This evening the 2015 BBC Proms season bursts into life at the Royal Albert Hall. Over the next eight weeks, you can guarantee that musical memories aplenty will be created, as the world’s great singers, players, orchestras, choirs and conductors play their part in the finest festival of them all.
Ever since the first Proms took place in 1895, in fact, every season has provided its fair share of memorable moments, though not all were quite as planned. Here, Helen Wallace picks out half-a-dozen famous (or should that be infamous?) ‘Proms Tales of the Unexpected’…
Let’s have a party, 1940-style
You can’t beat a war-time story… on 26 August 1940, as Prommers stood in Queens Hall, the first wave of air-raids was launched on London. Instructed to remain in the hall until the early hours, the audience took the cue to party. Songbooks were handed out, pianist Gerald Moore accompanied, there was dancing, yodelling displays and soloists and orchestral players launched into their own version of X Factor: in short, a jolly good time was had by all. But within two weeks the season closed, and in May 1941 Queens Hall was hit by a bomb and burned to the ground.
Mad Max clears the Hall, 1969
Young Lancashire firebrand Peter Maxwell Davies caused a stir in 1969 with his 40-minute orchestral juggernaut Worldes Blis. Max, who stepped in to conduct it at the last minute, recalled, ‘Most of the audience walked out, and most of those who stayed booed.’ Anyone expecting Carmina Burana in his transformations of 13th-century monody was in for a shock. It was actually one of very few occasions when the Proms audience rejected a new work: Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces were hissed in 1912, but though Birtwistle’s 1995 Panic jammed the BBC switchboard, the complaints only came from outraged TV audiences and tabloid critics having a field day: ‘Last Fright of the Proms’.
A striking occasion, 1980
The 1980 Proms seasons opened with… no orchestra. As BBC musicians went on strike over plans to disband the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the season was forced to open with a recording of Elgar’s The Apostles. The players had planned their own parallel ‘First night of the Proms’ in Alexandra Palace, only for it to (mysteriously) burn to the ground on the very same day, which forced a move to Wembley Conference Centre. The strike eventually ended with the disbanding of regional light orchestras, but only after 20 concerts had been missed and relations at an all-time low.
Ill-fated Rides, 1997 & 2001
‘You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?’ John Adams may well have wished he hadn’t given his exuberant orchestral fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine quite such a specific title after it appeared to be jinxed: first programmed in 1997, it was dropped from the Last Night after Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, and, again, in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. It finally cleared the flag on 24 July, 2004, and will appear in the Ten Pieces Prom on Saturday 18 July this year.
Water, water, everywhere, 2009
It’s not often that an indoor event gets put in doubt due to flooding, but the Proms has managed it. In 2009, as the players of the Vienna Philharmonic were packing up after their Prom, a departing double bassist knocked a sprinkler head in the bull-run under the stage and water was pouring from the ceiling on to an array of priceless instruments below. The stopcock was eventually located, but all hands were commandeered to mop up before cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Late Night Prom, including those of director Roger Wright himself…
All over the place, 1995 & 2014
Just about every inch of the hall has been employed by composers writing Proms commissions, but perhaps Benedict Mason must take the Prize for Commitment to Perambulation. In his 1995 Clarinet Concerto, only the soloist was left on stage while 22 members of the London Sinfonietta walked the corridors of the Royal Albert Hall for more than half an hour armed with click tracks and music. Last year he went one better, in Meld, clearing the arena and persuading the Aurora Orchestra and choir Chantage to circle the gallery, pop-up in flash-mob style ensembles, roll balls, indulge in a spot of Riverdance jigging and clapping and – oh yes – perform his music. Not one for the radio…