The coronavirus has had a far more devastating effect on the Proms than Adolf Hitler ever did. While Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts relocated to Bedford Corn Exchange during the Second World War after they were forced out of bomb-blitzed London, David Pickard (current Proms Director) has no such option. And so, for six weeks, classical music fans must make do with archive material from Proms history before the concerts transfer to the Royal Albert Hall for the last two. Names of artists are unconfirmed; exact conditions within the Hall awaiting government advice.
Watching concerts from the past is a quick-fix solution (the BBC are doing much the same with the completely cancelled Glastonbury), but while there is a great deal to enjoy from 73 years of televised concerts, and radio recording stretching back to the 1920s (think of all those famed appearances by conductors such as Malcolm Sargent and Georg Solti), there is no substitute for the power of live music. The appeal of the Proms lies partly in the extraordinary atmosphere it creates which – whether you are lucky enough to be at the Albert Hall or watching it from the comfort of your own home – is infectious.
Of course, under current government restrictions, the idea of any kind of electric atmosphere is unlikely. However, the Proms might well have sought inspiration from the Wigmore Hall which is staging live lunchtime concerts every weekday throughout June featuring various soloists. Our classical artists, many of them freelance and not well remunerated, could certainly do with the opportunity. An empty venue is a strange thing to behold, but new isolated Proms concerts from the start would make no small contribution to a live arts scene in crisis.
When the Proms finally moves to the Albert Hall on August 28, it is very hard to know what sort of concert to expect. However, the size of this extraordinary building which has a capacity of 5,544 including standing room in the gallery means that social distancing COULD take place effectively. My guess is that it could run at a thirty per cent capacity which would mean around 2,000 visitors in the Hall. Families could make use of the many boxes and Promenaders could sit a seat apart from each other in every other row. This would lead to a rather denuded Last Night, but it would be a step in the right direction.
The Last Night of the Proms, love it or loathe it, is of course an important event in the English psyche. It has become a political football in recent years, and a battleground in miniature between Leavers and Remainers, but ultimately it is a celebration of a festival which is the envy of the world and we mustn’t forget that. If, come the Last Night on September 12, tough restrictions are still in place and viewers at home are reduced to waving flags out of their living room windows, it will be a very sorry state of affairs. Recreating the experience at home may work well for events such as the Eurovision Song Contest, but that is a celebration of irony, a camp-fuelled take on an event which we know we will never win again.
The Proms, on the other hand, is a source of national pride and needs to be cherished to full effect. Other countries have their classical festivals, but nothing beats our flagships concerts in terms of their scale or their star power.
Sir Simon Rattle has described the Proms as “a sort of home” and he’s right. If we’re denied the full experience, we will be left feeling destitute.