On Sunday night I travelled over to the Isle of Wight to play with a more or less scratch orchestra for a Last Night of the Proms concert.
There are many things that are peculiar about these kinds of things (and some more that were curious about this one in particular). The most obvious is probably that one annual performance has spawned a subgenre that must outnumber the actual last performance of the BBC Proms by hundreds to one in terms of concerts given.
The indispensable feature, as with programming the actual Albert Hall Last Night, of course, is a (usually literally) flag-waving finale sequence including chunks of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1’ (better known as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ – usually only the tail end of the concert march is played as that is the bit the words were set to) and the English national anthem. As a cellist with whom (and his violinist sister, doing the actual driving) I lift-shared pointed out, cheerful popular nationalism isn’t really seen anywhere else in Britain except sport today – and sporting nationalism is very different and, to the non sports fan, quite strange in itself.
What other music goes into the mix leading up to that finale sequence is rather more at planners’ discretion. But Sunday’s event was probably fairly typical of at least the traditional form of these things. The Isle of Wight, as far as I can gather from car journeys across it to and from the gig, is a patch of gently rolling countryside encrusted with southern English seaside towns – very much as if there had been a sixth Cinque Port which got torn up from its place alongside Deal, Sandwich et al and accidentally dropped by a butter-fingered giant a few miles off Southampton. Out of tourist season, the population is rather middle-class and past middle age, and the musical community, at least the community putting on this concert, is mostly led by military and ex-military men (conductor: Major (ret’d); post horn soloists (we’ll get to that): one current and one former Marine; concert organised by a bloke from the Drum Corps).
So we had a musical programme tailored towards what the likely audience would be likely to enjoy (which, let’s be honest, is more than can be said for a lot of orchestral performances). Most concisely, you could call this the hinterlands of classical music without being really of it. More flag-waving (Dambusters March); some pretty interludes (Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, the Intermezzo from Cavalieri Rusticana); plenty of numbers with soloists, mostly singers, to give focus (a Puccini aria, a Lehar lied); bits of fun people are likely to know (Radetsky March, ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ which for most modern purposes is the can-can with a long introduction). Soloists local of course, the singers either gifted teenagers or temporary returnees from London conservatoires. You could see the whole thing as falling into the now more or less dead genre of ‘light music’; even the more modern insertions (medleys of excerpts from Oliver, Les Misérables and the score to Pirates of the Caribbean) fit the spirit and approach of the style with only a chronological update from, say, Sullivan’s ‘Pineapple Polka’.
Perhaps you could sum up by saying that this is defined by being orchestral music – it all truly was, no fudging the issue by draping string and wind sections around essentially a rock band or piano and vocals sound – with none of the genuine classical tradition’s approach to structure. Only the medleys made it over about five minutes long (bar possibly ‘Orpheus’), and they did so by joining thematically unrelated material end to end. It requires classical discipline to play (I was put on violin 1 and had some startlingly high and fast notes to get round – too much of my recent and/or paid orchestral playing has been on viola from that point of view), but not classical understanding to listen to with appreciation. Its roots are in non-orchestral secular music (being essentially only folk in Western Europe until the end of the nineteenth century) not being respectable, but it being genuinely unreasonable to expect an audience defined by social class rather than aesthetic preferences to enjoy programmes of symphonies and concerti (in the form to which they developed after Beethoven anyway – the shape of the sociomusical scene up to about the 1770s was markedly different).
Approaches to the music become different as it is valued less. Different pencil scrawls indicate a cut here, a tacet there, this section down the octave, an extra repeat or encore of this section in a way that would never be dreamed of in high art music (though that pales into insignificance compared to actual pit band parts for musicals and theatre). The language was revealing of less exaggerated self-respect than the typical orchestral professional too: a note on the final phrase of the Pirates of the Caribbean medley (played by us, too, with each note directed) read: ‘just follow the f[***]ing conductor!’. Expectations of conductors are seemingly different too. Whereas conducting from full score became de rigueur for classical music as far back as the nineteenth century I believe, several of these editions (not always the most musically straightforward either), printed certainly after WW1 and possibly after WW2, had instead the ‘Violin 1 (Conductor)’ part, a curious halfway house in which the tune is cued into the first violin part wherever it isn’t being played by them anyway, or sometimes only where they would otherwise have long rests. The result of course is that the conductor is more or less limited to giving the pulse, cueing lead entries and correcting any mistakes in the melody (never mind the assumption that there is only one melody at a time). There is a built-in assumption of little rehearsal time and little subtlety here, which is once again telling for the attention the composer / arranger expected the audience to give: one tune, always on top of some accompanying parts, style of delivery doesn’t have to vary too much, you’ll know if a note’s wrong because it will sound wrong, go!
As I say, this programme was well-judged for its context and billing. It certainly seemed so by audience reaction, and a fairly full audience. Even the deliberately bad, groan-inducing, very extended comic compèring à la Dame Edna Everage, which at times made me wonder if she was introducing the orchestra or we were providing the musical interludes in her stand-up act, seemed to go down well. Not that the orchestra were taking things lying down on the comic front, with a cadenza to the Post-Horn Galop that lasted rather longer than the piece itself (impressive that anyone can do circular breathing on a natural brass instrument, especially while wandering through the auditorium), the semi-traditional suddenly out of tune ending to the violin solo in the Fantasia on Sea Songs and a drastic accelerando as ‘Auld Lang Syne’ proceeded which I can testify was not marked in any of the parts!
Nonetheless, I return to my opening remark: this style, orchestral and mostly nineteenth-century music as accessible entertainment, is an oddity for my generation, even to someone like me who does music as accessible entertainment much more often than music as art. Maybe the fact I do that is the reason why I would quite like my fully-scored, especially orchestral, playing to contain a little more meaty content when I get to do any?