My first Prom

Several people around the MPR building have an inspirational little poem tacked to their bulletin boards from one of the monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. The piece is about perfectionism and how it can pretty much kill any good idea in its infancy. The poet reminds the reader of how lovely imperfect things are—for instance, the armless Venus de Milo. The poem has a fantastic last line: Remember, the Liberty Bell is cracked.

Tonight I heard my first Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall here in London, the Vienna Philharmonic led by Zubin Mehta. I’ve always hoped that, on my deathbed, I’ll be able to say that I got to hear this, the world’s greatest orchestra, play in its home hall, the golden Musikverein. This has been the orchestra I’ve always wanted to hear in concert—the group that Brahms had in his ear when he wrote his symphonies, that Mahler fought with and won over to his music, that thumbed its nose at Schubert’s work when it was still in manuscript but now plays it as if these notes reside in the deepest weave of its DNA. Tonight was my first night to ever hear them live. The world’s perfect orchestra.

Or not.

As they started the first piece, a late Haydn symphony, the horns were way out of tune with the strings and the effect was like biting into some fruit expecting it to be an orange that turned out to be a lemon. Mehta got them quickly on the same page and Haydn out of danger. In the next piece, they accompanied a fabulous Swedish soprano in three scenes from Berg’s Wozzeck in a performance that was just about flawless. But after intermission, the crack in the bell opened again. The first bars of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring hold a famous high solo for bassoon—which came off perfectly, but when the horns came in again against that—ouch, tuning friends! Once again, Mehta put that behind him and the Orchestra dug deep to bring off a performance of The Rite that I’d never heard sound so savage.

By the end of the night, the audience of 6000 roared for more and we got two Strauss bonbons—and heard the perfect orchestra, imperfections and all, play them perfectly.

BBC Proms in London

I am in London preparing for the live Last Night of the Proms broadcast on Saturday, September 10. Don Lee, my producer, writes the first post from this side of the Atlantic:

This is my fourth year producing the U.S. broadcast of the Last Night of the Proms. I arrived in London yesterday to begin preparations on location. With the exception of less-than-optimal internet connections in the hotel, everything is proceeding routinely so far. The rest of the crew—host Brian Newhouse and fellow producer Lauren Rico—got in this morning, weary but ready to go to work. This is their first Proms experience and I realized today how much I’d been looking forward to sharing it with them.

As we walked together through Kensington toward the Royal Albert Hall on this warm September evening, I also realized that I was most eager to see how they reacted to the actual concertgoing experience at the Proms. It’s unlike any other I’ve experienced. The quality of communication at Proms concerts is extraordinary. A lot of that has to do with the Proms audience. They want to be there and nowhere else. They hang on every note. The focus in the hall can be intense. The Prommers’ rapt attention seems to inspire the best in the orchestras that play at the Proms. I’ve observed that in my few visits and veteran Prom-goers corroborate the impression.

Tonight we heard Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic perform Haydn, Berg and Stravinsky and, frankly, I was a little let down. By the audience. Tonight, the Prommers were out of sync with the performers. They carried on with coughing beyond the end of movement breaks. They applauded a moment too soon at the conclusion of the Berg—causing Mehta to drop his extended arms in a shrug. These were the tangible signs, insignificant on their own, but I think they pointed to something bigger. Some of the focus seemed to return with The Rite of Spring, but for Brian and Lauren’s first Proms, I’d hoped for more: an experience that would rocket them out of their jet lag.

That’s my review of the Proms audience, one side of the equation. I’ll leave it to Brian, the man with the ears, to talk about the performers.

—Don Lee