I suppose commissioning a piece called “Olympic Fire” (there’s another one called “Javelin”, heaven help us, tonight—at least I presume that refers to the pointy thing people chuck about, rather than being an encomium to the Jowett) is the BBC’s attempt to create some kind of ‘relevance’ for the sportier types who might be tempted thereby to ditch the telly coverage of the four-yearly athletes’ drugstest in favour of a Prom or two. Sorry, I mean ‘sportsfest’. I think.
Which leads me to my first moan. Our ‘Unculture’ (whose name bears an uncanny resemblance to both the sharp implement and the vehicle) Minister, just before the Proms programming was made public, accused classical music (and the Proms, by implication, though later she denied it) of being “excluding” of various age groups and races. This, despite the wonderful Soweto Strings at last year’s Proms.
Classical music does not, any more than any other pursuit, “exclude” people. People exclude themselves. It’s something either you gain an interest in, hopefully with passion, or you don’t. I have never had any interest whatsoever in sport, although I was a passable sprinter in my early teens when I couldn’t avoid teachers bullying me onto the sports field. (I was never even that bothered about winning, even though I did sometimes, which, despite Baron de Coubertin, I gather is the main aim.) But I don’t feel ‘excluded’ from it. ‘Uninterested’ is the proper word. It’s just the amount of coverage it gets now on TV and radio and in the press makes me angry. And, come to think of it, ‘excluded’ but only in the sense I feel they feel I ought to be one of them.
I might as well complain to FIFA I am ‘excluded’ from football because they don’t play classical music at the interval, or whatever they call the space between the two halves. (Discounting Nessun Dorma, of course.) All this politician was doing, despite the hurt she caused, was trying to drum up a bit of coverage for a department that has, under her, collapsed even more into desuetude. And might have disappeared without trace, except that sport, god help us, is also under its umbrella. Catch the French (pre-Sarkozy, anyway, I wouldn’t be too sure now) doing that. But the side-effects are probably going to last for years.
The other reason for not intending to listen was Slatkin reappearing. I thoroughly disliked his tenancy (for in all honesty, that is all it amounted to) with the BBCSO, for reasons I won’t bore you with. A friend who was at his last concert with them told me she had never ever heard an audience apparently sound so relieved that the conductor of a major orchestra was departing. Privately, at home, I cheered. I would even have thrown 50p into his retirement fund collecting bucket, had there been one, to help pay the fare home. Preferably on a slow, uninsured-at-Lloyds, cargo boat.
(As Maggie Thatcher—who I also loathe, I might say, and not just for her ignorance of the arts, either— memorably said at her last appearance in the House of Commons, “I’m enjoying this!” I’d never have dared submit this for print; at least not in quite such unveiled terms.)
So, would Chen Yi's “Olympic Fire” have attracted any of the excluded sporty types, or was it just there as some kind of sop to its being Olympics year again, a futile PR attempt to get just one Prom concert a two-liner in the sport-obsessed media?
I doubt the first. Not unless they’d like a Pekin Opera version of Bernstein (or vice-versa) conducted as though it was a 100m sprint. I’m not sure who won, but I think it was a dead heat between the conductor and the RPO, with the composer falling out of the race very early on through injury. I hope. So I suspect PR. Which is why my review, too, is a two-liner. Despite the Proms audience who were obviously caught up in the mad rush. Of first-performance adrenalin only, I trust. I'd fail a drugs test at Door 8 of the Albert Hall if they ever bring them in; I have to take a morphia-derivative these days . . .
Olga Kern wore a red dress to the Albert Hall. To hide the blood? Slatkin came as "Flash Lenny." That's all, folks. Packed house (and you can take that which way you like) or not, the 'Rach & Pag' Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini was a comic strip performance.
I did listen to the Vaughan Williams, but it's the interval piece on Dives and Lazarus, especially the woman folk singer in her 60's from forty years back, I'd choose to listen to again, and if it's on the BBC listings anywhere, I suggest you do too.