Raising the white flag at the BBC Proms
During a 1970s Festival Hall concert conducted by Bernard Haitink a serial cougher decided to accompany the posthorn solo in the third movement of Mahler's monumental Third Symphony. Maestro Haitink continued to beat time with his baton while using his left hand to extract a white handkerchief from his pocket and hold it high over his head to encourage the cougher to mute the intrusive noise.
Such an action would be unthinkable at the Proms today, because the conductor would spend the whole concert with an arm raised holding a handkerchief. At one time the Proms audience had the enviable reputation of being the best audience in the world, but now it is the noisiest. My most recent visit to a Prom was almost certainly my last. Because not only is the Albert Hall sound poor, the sight lines unacceptable, the ambient temperature too high and the foyer facilities inadequate. But I found myself surrounded by people who made it quite clear that they were not there to appreciate the music, but rather to participate in a mass sonic selfie via persistent coughing, distracting talking, playing with mobile phones and the inevitable politically correct applause between movements.
This year a new and important element has been added to this sonic selfie, the conductor's speech. Daniel Barenboim rode his personal hobby horse in his speech at a recent Prom, and next month it is the turn of his fellow Askonas Holt artist Simon Rattle - a shared provenance which, incidentally, I suggest is not insignificant. Let us hope that when Simon Rattle rides his personal hobby horse in his post-Gurrelieder speech he pleads not only for a better London concert hall, but also for a better Proms audience.
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