Into the classical music bear-pit: Alan Johnson goes to the Proms

Growing up in North Kensington Alan Johnson used to play around the Albert Hall but never went inside. 60 years later we sent the former home secretary along to experience the Proms for the first time. What did he make of it?

I’m no stranger to the Royal Albert Hall. John Lennon knew how many holes it took to fill it and, as a child, I knew how many steps it took to reach the huge statue of the Prince Consort that stands opposite (42 in case you’re interested).

Raised in the royal borough, my sister and I would spend most of the school summer holidays in Kensington Gardens while our mother scrubbed and cleaned for the more prosperous folk south of Ladbroke Grove. We would be released into the park straight off the No 52 bus with sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper and told to visit the museums if it rained. The great Italianate edifice of the Albert Hall was familiar terrain.

Classical music is not exactly alien to me. It poured from the huge wireless that my mother rented from Radio Rentals, on the few occasions when the arrow shaped switch was turned to the Third Programme. But I’d never been to the Proms – a South Kensington event that had little relevance in North Kensington where we lived.

‘Inform, educate and entertain’ … a flag-waving crowd at London’s Royal Albert Hall for the last night of the Proms.
‘Inform, educate and entertain’ … a flag-waving crowd at London’s Royal Albert Hall for the last night of the Proms. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

Class division within London’s richest municipality is in the air on the balmy July evening that I saunter along Exhibition Road to my first Prom. The dark, obscene husk of Grenfell Tower exposes inequalities that have always existed; in 1950 when I was born, in 1895 when the Promenade Concerts began; in 1871 when the Royal Albert Hall first opened. The difference in life expectancy between North and South Kensington is about the same as between North and South Korea. Today we have the statistics to prove what has always been obvious – the poor die younger than the rich.

Alan Johnson in his former Westminster parliamentary office.
Alan Johnson in his former Westminster parliamentary office. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

My musical evening is entirely relevant to the class struggle. In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution I will be listening to two works by Shostakovich: the first written to celebrate the revolution’s 50th anniversary; and the second (his first violin concerto) suppressed by Stalin and only premiered seven years after its completion (and 30 months after Uncle Joe’s death).

I know I’m among the middle classes when, as I leave the ticket office a passing concertgoer, recognising me as a dissident, raises a fist and declares: “Viva Corbyn.” While not a sentiment I expect to encounter at the rugby league Challenge Cup final, it feels entirely appropriate here. As I take my seat, three elderly men in the row behind are having an earnest conversation about Khrushchev’s memoirs. I guess that they are old commies from the generation that imagined Russia, in the immortal words of Peter Sellers playing Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack as “all them cornfields and ballet in the evening”.

Shostakovich was obliged to churn out music to mark every decade since the overthrow of the Romanovs, rather as the poet laureate has to produce a verse or two to mark each royal occasion. This piece, entitled October, is dull and dutiful but the violin concerto that follows is stunning. The soloist is one of classical music’s superstars, Nicola Benedetti. The piece was written for the composer’s friend, the legendary Soviet violinist David Oistrakh, whose photograph appears in the programme. A sturdy barrel of a man, we are told that he was exhausted by the Cadenza. The slight figure of Benedetti shows no sign of fatigue as she finishes to wild applause; like someone who’d just scaled a mountain in the Urals wearing an evening frock.

Wild applause … Nicola Benedetti.
Wild applause … Nicola Benedetti. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Communism’s eloquent visionary, Leon Trotsky, believed that once mankind had “ceased to crawl before God, Tsar and Capital” the average man would rise to the stature of Aristotle developing a sublime form of all the arts. What actually happened was quite different. As Shostakovich was writing this concerto, a few years after Trotsky’s collision with an ice-pick, he was denounced by the party for “formalist distortions and anti-democratic tendencies”. Unlike many of his associates, the composer survived and so, thankfully, did this violin concerto.

During the interval, my young BBC host Anna introduces me to her family. The three daughters are all classical musicians who grew up listening to Busted and McFly. Anna’s mum tells me that the last time she and her husband came to the Albert Hall was to see Jackson Browne. Elitism around classical music has diminished during my lifetime; barriers are being broken down and yet the esoteric nature of the music persists with me among the uninitiated who grapple with movements, opus numbers and passacaglias.

In the concert’s second half, as I listen to Sibelius’s Second Symphony I’m captivated by the finale’s “big tune”, but the programme notes express the view that this may be an indulgence “wallowing in the rich orchestration … at the expense of more advanced or demanding musical terrain”.

That certainly put me in my place.

Sakari Oramo conducting at the Proms … he says there is no music festival in the world to match them.
Sakari Oramo conducting at the Proms … he says there is no music festival in the world to match them. Photograph: Mark Allan/BBC

When I later meet Sakari Oramo, the Finnish chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, I quote this as an example of the snobbery that many people feel is still a feature of classical music. Oramo insists that whoever wrote that is doing a disservice to his revered countryman. There is certainly nothing elitist about Sakari. It’s difficult to imagine a less stereotypical conductor. He tells me that the days of the autocrat are over. Discipline comes naturally to talented musicians; it doesn’t need to be imposed by a tyrant with a baton.

Oramo has huge admiration for the BBC but emphasises his independence – he’s contracted to the Beeb rather than being an employee. He believes there is nothing in the world to match the Proms.

With 75 events spread over 58 consecutive days, it is an extravaganza that reinforces the BBC’s founding principles to inform, educate and entertain. It costs around £10m, of which half is recouped in ticket sales. The net cost is a fraction of the £3.7bn raised by the licence fee. I also attend the Proms Extra events before concerts, which are free and where music is discussed and children are invited to play with seasoned musicians.

The Albert Hall is sold out most nights with a hard core of music fans paying £6 to stand in a Proms version of the Stretford End. This is where the ultras stake their territory, proud to sacrifice personal comfort to Apollo. I descend into this bear-pit for Prom 44 to hear a new work commissioned by the BBC and performed by its Youth Ensemble together with the non-conformist six-piece, Bang on a Can.

A delight … the Bang on a Can All-Stars playing at Prom 44.
A delight … the Bang on a Can All-Stars playing at Prom 44. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

It’s a late-night concert. The usual Albert Hall audience has shrunk to 1,000 but it produces my biggest Prom delight. Bang on a Can are terrific, demonstrating the power of the repetitive, the glory of the crescendo. I’m particularly entranced by the final movement of Glassworks by the minimalist US composer Philip Glass.

There are other pleasures to enjoy before my final Prom, which is Mahler’s 90-minute confrontation with life, death and eternity, otherwise known as his Symphony No 2 “Resurrection”. I certainly went out on a high. I’ve long been a fan of Mahler but this was on a different scale to anything that I’d heard before. Oramo led the 129-piece orchestra, 241 choristers from two separate choirs, a soprano, a mezzo-soprano and the grand organ (the organist sitting with his back to the conductor, watching his actions in a mirror set just above his head like a driver keeping an eye on following traffic).

This was a suitable climax to my Proms experience; music that came as close to explaining the meaning of life as anything I’m likely to hear. I resolve to add it to my CD collection, along with the Philip Glass piece and the latest albums by Everything Everything and Regina Spektor. Great music is worth listening to regardless of genre – and great music is a force for good, whoever plays it and wherever it’s played.


Alan Johnson

The GuardianTramp

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