BBC Proms 2019. Trying too hard to please us all?

The launch of the new season of the BBC Proms is always met with excited anticipation. I had a preview of this year’s programme late last night, thanks to an article on the Classical Source website. Glancing through the “highlights” my heart sank a little, then a little more…..By this morning, having read more detailed surveys of the new season, I felt rather deflated.

Every spring, when the Proms season is announced, there is a chorus of disapproval about the programming – and every year it seems that the Proms have to try harder than ever to justify their existence. There are always howls of complaint about the Proms being “too populist” or “gimmicky” , or not populist enough. Or too inclusive. Too much, or too little new music. Too few works by women composers. Too little coverage on BBC television – and so on. The adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of time” is particularly apt for the Proms.

When the Proms were founded by Robert Newman and Henry Wood, their stated aim was to bring classical music to a wider audience, and the concerts were, by all accounts, quite lively, eclectic affairs, with big programmes and an audience who were permitted to eat, drink and smoke during performances (though patrons were requested not to strike matches during quiet passages). Do the Proms succeed in doing this today? It’s hard to tell, without some rigorous audience surveying (“Is this your first time?” etc), and I’d very interested to find out what percentage of the audience are genuine classical music ingenues. Also, do those people who attend the Ibiza Prom or this year’s hip hop Prom actually then book to hear a mainstream (or even non-mainstream) classical music concert? Are these types of concerts really a “gateway” to classical music for younger audiences? I’m not sure….

I used to argue quite vociferously for as broad a range of concerts as possible in the Proms, my view being that if you could get young people or those who wouldn’t normally attend classical music concerts through the doors of the Royal Albert Hall for Jarvis Cocker’s late night Prom or the Strictly Prom, they might return for a drop of Beethoven or a healthy dose of Tchaikovsky, but I don’t think this is borne out in actual ticket sales.

A few years ago I attended an all-Brahms Prom performed by the OAE with Marin Alsop (I was there because a friend of mine was playing double bass in the orchestra). I happened to be sharing a box with a family for whom this was their very first visit to the Proms, or indeed a classical music concert. They were anxious beforehand: out of their usual comfort zone, they had arrived at the concert full of the usual preconceptions about classical music – would they applaud “at the wrong time”, would they be able to “understand the music” etc etc. I told them to simply sit back and let the music wash over them, and that if they were worried about when to applaud, they could follow my lead. In the interval they turned to me and beamed with wide-eyed delight – they were loving it! As a mark of our new-found joint pleasure in the music, they shared their box of chocolates with me. This to me more than demonstrates that one doesn’t need to programme trendy or gimmicky Proms to engage people in classical music – and I am sure my experience is not unusual.

My feeling on looking at this year’s programme is that the planners are attempting that impossible task of trying to please all the people all of the time, and as a consequence, the programme feels like a rather weird mish mash of mainstream classical music, a few novelties, some great warhorses of the repertoire, and a whole bunch of disparate “populist” oddities. More often than not these days, I feel the BBC is almost apologetic about classical music – an attitude which is fairly common (cf. Radio 4’s Today programme whose presenters frequently snigger or smirk when talking about classical music, as if is some kind of weird taboo). And then the BBC broadcasts something so splendid and moving as the recent programme about Janet Baker by John Bridcut and just for a moment, it feels like the good old days of high-quality cultural broadcasting….. Those days are gone of course, but why can’t we celebrate classiccal music for what is really is? It’s wonderful, it’s fantastic, it’s epic, it’s heart-stoppingly dramatic, tear-jerkingly beautiful, tender, poignant, funny, bizarre and so so varied. It’s not all written by dead white guys in periwigs and not all contemporary music sounds like a “squeaky gate”. There is something for everyone in the vast canon of classical music and a way to bring that to “a wider audience” would be to curate a festival that demonstrates and confirms this without the need to resort to “crossover” or gimmicks.

The BBC Proms, the world’s largest classical music festival, launched today with concerts featuring hip hop music…” (paraphrase of announcement on Radio 4 Today programme, Wednesday 17th April).

I’m tired of people (presenters, promoters, marketers, critics, audiences, even some musicians) apologising for classical music. Instead let’s celebrate it.

4 Comments

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  1. We have attended a number of Proms over the past few years, mainly promming but occasionally seated. We have reached the stage in which we don’t want to prom any more, because of the rude and arrogant behaviour of many of the season ticket holders. God help you if you get anywhere near the hallowed front, even if you have come a great distance and queued since early morning for numbered ticket. They clearly feel that the Proms are just for them. So yes, in this way it is elitist, and it is a long way from what I imagine Henry Wood intended. I appreciate that this is off subjrct, but just wanted to air. Presumably moderator can remove if necessary.

  2. Hear, hear! I am sick and tired of people in authority apologising for anything that is called elitist by an ignorant minority. There really is room for all kinds of music. Trying to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator is simply trying to reverse progressive evolution instead of encouraging enlightenment

  3. And you are not alone. It is a classical music festival with a world wide reputation. So ‘if it ain’t broke…’

  4. It isn’t just the Promms going this way. The St Magnus INternational Music Festival here in Orkney also suffers from poor programming – &, as a result, a drop in attendance to the ticket prices are hiked up, which produces a vicous cirlce…

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