Wednesday, July 25, 2012

800 Words: The Proms Wakes Me Up

Had I returned to London any year before this one, reacclimation would have been easier, perhaps instant. For seven years after I lived here for a mere summer, I had looked back on London as ‘my city’ with all the fervor of a spiritual home: in which the people are far better educated, more polite, friendlier, funnier, than any other place I’d ever been. Hell, maybe it’s even true. 

But I could far easier make a claim for ‘my city’ to be Baltimore, Washington DC, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, perhaps even New York or Bethany Beach, Delaware and not have to be one of those stupid Americans who thinks of Europe as a kind of magic dreamland which exists completely apart from reality. On the other hand, London really is my kind of town to a degree no other city has ever been; not even New York or Boston. All the cultural amenities of America - the TV, the movies, the music, are thriving here with a public that boils with enthusiasm and make themselves present to a degree that would cause any American to feel at home. But on the other hand, there’s the old-world veneration of those things about which so many Americans have completely forgotten: old music, straight theater, the written word, Art with a capital A. Certainly some American cities: New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, have those qualities as well, but none of them feel built to house both in tandem to nearly the same degree which London does. Perhaps Paris will, but whatever Paris holds, it will reveal some very different things from London. For me, London stands as the cultural watchdog between Old World and New, meanwhile becoming a playground for the best of both. Now if only I had unlimited amounts of money....

But this London, ‘my’ London, seemed almost absent for me on my first day. By the time I arrived early yesterday morning, my bleary-eyed self had barely slept in 24 hours. I spent the plane ride reading about France, failing to finish movies, and being woken up by crying babies and restless neighbors.

Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, but the alarming truth was that I spent an entire day in London without it entirely hitting me that I was back (poor me..). It was shocking how absent the frission was of seeing the city’s omnipresent green spaces, being back in the tube, walking around South Kensington, standing next to Royal Albert Hall... it was as though I’d completely forgotten what once thrilled me about this place. It just seemed so....white!

It’s just like the sense of entitlement a college student feels to see a place which resembles nothing so much as a fairy tale and decide that such a place is his birthright. But my first reaction was a sort of deadened hilarity at how homogeneous English people are. Certainly there is a large Middle Eastern and Indian population, but at first glance, the white population seems so secluded, so segregated from that population that it seems to affect them not at all - at least in America whites interact with blacks and hispanics by forcing them to serve as the underclass...

For a country so well known for its class system, today’s England is strikingly casteless. Interacting with today’s Englishmen feels not unlike interacting with the Americans of two generations ago. To a contemporary American, it can seem like a relic of the perfect (or perfectly dead) society which we will never know in which everybody gets a stunningly high base level of education, to a point which no cliques seem to have formed with each holding their own values and ‘languages,’ and everybody seems to interact one another with such security that nearly the entire country seems like an extended family. The different parts of English society have so successfully, seemlessly blended that there is hardly a melting pot of which one can speak. Compared to America, today’s England seems so secure, and so shielded from conflict, that it can almost deceive you into thinking it dull. Is this a sign that the country is on the precipice of an explosion, or a sign that it’s about to have half-a-millenium of uninterrupted peace?

It was only around 7:15 yesterday evening, upon us ‘prommers’ being led into the gallery of Royal Albert Hall after roughly hours of standing in a queue, shepherded into the most crowded imaginable space like Muslims on the Haj into the Grand Mosque to see Daniel Barenboim conduct two Beethoven Symphonies and a ‘modern’ work by Pierre Boulez, that I began waking up to an overwhelming sense of culture shock.

I was standing exactly four rows behind the conductor’s podium. And around me in that gallery was a panoply of ages, and at least half a dozen simultaneous conversations about classical music, all knowledgeable and completely audible. Two rows behind me was a young man talking up a beautiful woman and seemingly trying to impress her with his knowledge about Charles Mackerras’s career. One row behind me to my left was a man and a woman clearly on a date, both in their late fifties, and telling each other about the most memorable orchestral concerts they’ve seen in the last few years. In front of me was an older gentleman, telling an older lady about how Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven stacked up to all the other Beethoven cycles he’d seen. My friend, The Harris, and I struck up a conversation with another guy there; in his fifties, my height and vaguely Jewish looking (we were the only two people there under five-and-a-half feet tall) and spoke about Barenboim for some minutes. Near me was a German couple in their thirties, and from whatever little German I have I picked up that they were very excited for the Boulez. Next to me was a still more beautiful woman than the other who seemed to have come to a Proms concert completely alone. Near me another guy, early twenties and looking like an American popped-collar frat boy, standing completely on his own. Another guy in his twenties stood alone, and was reading some sort of music book. Clearly the older generation seemed more knowledgeable on the whole, but here was a city where classical music still clearly has a future.

It was only at intermission that I worked up the nerve to do what I barely had the nerve to do eight years ago - I spoke to nearly all of them. The kid reading the music book was a doctoral fellow at Kings College in Medieval Literature who hated Wolfram von Eschenbach. The ‘jock’ was an enthusiastic amateur violinist who loved playing Beethoven in semi-pro orchestras. The beautiful girl standing alone was a French girl with barely any English, but she played Beethoven on the piano and wanted to hear the symphonies. The German couple were jazz music lovers who wanted to determine if Boulez sounded like free-jazz, or if free-jazz sounded like Boulez (they also gave me some delicious olives). Of the couple on the date, I learned that the guy had been going to the Proms every year for thirty years and had been going to concerts of the Liverpool Philharmonic since he was a child, and of the woman I learned that she has a personal, not musical, hatred of Roger Norrington.  

The Proms is the greatest music festival in the world. Period. There is nothing in any other genre in any city which compares to the coordination it takes to assemble a different orchestra from a different part of the world every night for two months in a venue that can house six-thousand people with standing room 5 pound tickets in the front of the hall. It is now in its 117th year, and the seasons show only signs of growing in size and scope - there’s even an additional chamber music festival now at Wigmore Hall.

In America, a festival like this is utterly unthinkable. In order for The Proms to happen, there needs to be a massive government subsidy from a national broadcasting organization (in this case the massively funded BBC) which thinks classical music is in itself a public good - and they therefore produce, distribute, and advertise the concerts throughout the entire world. The whole idea that classical music, or even music itself, is a public good would cause many Americans to laugh themselves senseless - and perhaps rightly so. There is very little evidence that much good is done for the public by putting a hundred or so classical concerts. But ultimately, that is why The Proms are so awesome. Artists thrive on risk, and the best art is neither made when artists have too little money nor a too stable source of income - neither situation inspires people in the arts to their best. What inspires them is that tenuous middle ground where the funding to survive can be taken away at any moment - and they therefore must beg, borrow, or steal the money they need to fulfill their dreams.

Many music lovers in the UK protest the fact that the Proms, and the organization who produces them, are being irredeemably dumbed down (how spoiled can you be?). But unlikely as it sounds, should the economy of Britain crumble to the ground tomorrow, what program will be hacked up first? The Proms or the National Health Service? Its the very fragileness of a festival like the Proms that makes it such a miracle. I’m not sure if I believe in God, but I believe in The Proms.

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