2006 Proms season

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Summer 07
Winter 07


In a break from strict narrative, this is my story of the Proms. How a fond staple of warm English summers has become the backbone of a cold Antarctic night.

I remember still my first night at a first night, queuing up the stone stairs in the summer sun, sipping lemonade slowly under blue skies as taxi traffic trundled along the road below. I think I spent the hour of waiting wittering about geology and quantum physics with someone who was then just an aquaintance and is now a good friend. The rest of the queue was chatty and engaging, looking forward to the spectacle to come. My introduction, perhaps, to the idea that the concerts were a community, drawn together to celebrate the power and passion that moved in the music.

I wasn't convinced about the standing around at first. Inside the circle was hot (moderated today by aircon) and the thought of two hours stood still stretched ahead as a terrible torture. The hall paraded its pillars all around as we paraded infront of the seated audience. We cooled down with bottled water and chatted away quietly as we waited for the orchestra to enter.

The programme was composed of pieces I knew and expected. But one I hadn't met before: John Adams's majestic Harmonium, sung by a full choir, voices stretched around the stage, seeming to surround the standing crowd. At first straining to hear the first pulsing, almost whispered 'no no no no', then exalting as the piece built in complexity as music and poetry collided in an enchanting climax. Awed silence held in the hall until the dieing final breath of the piece was shattered with strong applause -- not the polite chatter of required clapping that greets a lesser performance. Joyful smiles and uplifted hearts drove the ovation onwards to the performers. Waves of appreciation thundered back and forth until we filed out and set off on the long walk back to South Ken tube and a happy journey home.

After that I was hooked; turning up to work early so I could steal away in the afternoon to take the tube over to Kensington to ensure a spot in the line that would lead to entry. Being there, in the hall, is the best way I've known to enjoy old musical friends, and to discover new ones. Even out of the season the proms affects us. Music and with it the proms become a topic that comes up in parties. Strangers would turn into long, late conversations once we discovered we'd both been at "X", me near the fountain, her further off to the left, near the chap that fainted during the gentle central movement.

I tried to drag friends along, some bit and caught the bug and bought season tickets (now they act as informants) while the experience wasn't for others; standing about doesn't suit everyone after all.

But then I absconded to the Cotswolds. While I managed to fit a concert or two in with other engagements (or planned visits to friends around a choice weekend of programming) I certainly couldn't manage more trips to town, certainly not during the week. Now and then I'd get my fix from a televised evening, but still I'd wish I could be there.

Then to Antarctica, where I'm working at the UK's most isolated research station, Halley Bay. Concerts here are friendly affairs, have a mixed modern programme and cater for anyone with flexible tastes and a liking for pink floyd inspired guitar solos, but we can't muster a string quartet, let alone a whole orchestra.

We are, though, free of the cares of life back home. No trips to soulless shops or commutes to eat away at evenings. In these connected times our physical isolation is tempered by a satelite system that brings the Internet into our offices. Thanks to the BBC making concerts available for streaming download, and live internet broadcasts on radio3, I've been at more proms than I've managed for a year of two of being in the wrong part of England.

I'm a great Mozart man, so this year's programme was never going to disappoint, but again its been the suprises that really made this season work for me. Schubert's Great in C major had passed me by until a stormy evening threw its bounding confidence through my speakers. Outside a storm raged and rattled the building. Shaking glasses and swaying picture frames were accompanied by a statement of strength that blasted back at the cold and the biting wind.

Bliss's colour symphony added a soundtrack to the slow lingering dawns that set the sky alight with dark red embers and cast a purple light about the stars still shining in the midday darkness.

As August arrived and the sun rose again after 95 days, John Adams joined me in joyfully welcoming the first full day. The style of the pieces drew me back to my first time stood in the hall, as strong an image of Britain as any other, as the Union jack flew once more above our far flung outpost. Magnificient sunsets lingered along the icy horizon for hours as half a world away Eric Owens sang his heart out.

Calm cold days saw temperatures dive to fifty below, contrasting with loud and fast piano from Chopin, and playful prancing from the strings in Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring came dancing around in my head, still vivid and alive from the night before, as we made our first visits to our local colony of Emperor penguins. Survivors of the harsh winter huddled against the cold. We watched newly hatched chicks take their first looks at the world as the sun shone through the mist and picked the cliffs of ice out in burning orange.

Now as we pass into the last week of the season there's plenty still to look forward to. A tasty bit of Mahler, a final mass from Mozart and a last night to rival any other. As varied as the season that preceeded it, a mix of modern and traditional, familliar and fresh, might and meekness, sense and silliness. Not able to be there with you, I shall content myself with my imagination and radio3's streams, and spend the evening enjoying the music from 8,800 miles away, for once sat in a seat.
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