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Reviewing Proms and other theatre

Concerts are just another form of theatre – especially classical ones which, however hard promoters and co try to de-formalise them, do have an etiquette and light ritual all of their own. Part of the fun, rather than anything off-putting, I think

I have been attending classical music concerts since my early teens. And as this year’s Proms season ends I’m struck that I’ve been here, as it were, for a very long time. The Royal Albert Hall feels almost as familiar as my own sitting room.

Having said that, I’m relatively new to concert reviewing although I suppose it was a fairly obvious gelling of two aspects of my life. It started about five years ago when I was asked to dep as reviewer at a Maidstone Symphony Orchestra concert. They knew that I was a) a professional writer and b) a season ticket holder so I suppose I was an obvious person to approach when their regular man (now an editor I work for regularly) was indisposed.

From there the work grew. These days I review most of MSO’s concerts, Brighton Philharmonia at Brighton Dome, many of the Philharmonia concerts at Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury and lots of stuff around London including Opera Holland Park, various concerts in all shapes and sizes and – of course – the dear old Proms which feels like coming home.

I’m in a privileged position with the Proms because my lovely editor gives me “first dibs”. This year I picked eight and managed, despite this summer’s horrendous personal problems, to get to seven of them. I shall make sure the National Youth Orchestra concert is top of my list next year because I really would like to hear them but that particular evening was just too difficult this time round.

Personal 2019 highlights included Bernard Haitink conducting Vienna Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim with West-Eastern Divan and Semyon Bychkov with the Czech Phil. The “semi-staged” (better if they hadn’t bothered) Glyndebourne production of The Magic Flute was wonderful to listen to but bonkers to watch. As ever with such an enormous festival as the Proms – which seems to grow in ambition and scope every year – some you win and some you lose.

One of the things I really like about the Proms is the eclectic audiences they attract and I don’t recall that being so evident when I was young or perhaps I was less attuned to such things then. People bring children – lots and of them and not just the ones with musically enthusiastic parents with origins in the Far East. You see young people in their teens, twenties and thirties there independently too. There are also lots of people, eyes shining, for whom going to classical music concerts is clearly not something they do often. You hear them reading the programme and commenting wondrously – and that’s terrific. The Proms really do seem to reach a lot further than most concerts at say, Royal Festival Hall or The Barbican usually do.

For the record, I have never been a “Prommer”. I didn’t fancy standing up for a whole concert even when I was 15 and I certainly couldn’t do it now. Back in the day I bought the cheapest gallery seats that pocket money or my college grant would stretch to. Now, because I’m reviewing, the BBC gives me a nice stalls seat from which I can see fingers on keys and drum sticks and batons in action very clearly. Either way, it still feels like a very congenial party.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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