Proms 2019 – what is it for?

Pity the management of the BBC Proms. It’s a festival with such an outsized role in the UK’s classical music life that it must withstand everyone’s ideas of what the art form should be doing. It has weeks and weeks of high-quality concerts, and yet it still cannot match the abundance of a musical tradition centuries in the making, and ever-growing. However well planned, no Proms season will ever do justice to every neglected composer, or respected ‘masterwork’, that the maddening mob known as British classical music fans want to hear. 

Pity the management, because as much as I love the festival, if you were going to design it from scratch, this is hardly how you’d do it. It’s held in London, when we’re all painfully aware of the city’s over-privileged status. In a hall from a long-gone era of embarrassing imperial earnestness, designed for pompous spectacle rather than acoustic quality. Its schedule is too large to pin down to any overall theme, however much the BBC try to run meaningful threads through it.

And yet, here it is: a treasure. Still a way-in for many to experience live classical music in an informal atmosphere (a few snobs excepted). Still unbelievably good value-for-money to ‘Prom’, right up close to the stage for just £6. And it does a reliable job of serving up a level of variety – with so many concerts, it would be hard not to – but it’s a balancing act. There are those who value freshness and diversity, and those who would like a pageant of familiar classics, and a whole spectrum in between.

At this year’s launch, self-described ‘Prom Queen’ Katie Derham announced that the BBC’s goal was to reach the ‘widest possible audience’ – a remark one music journalist derided as meaningless. I get a sense the BBC don’t quite know how to sell the Proms. It’s too big, too bound up in tradition, to define exactly what it’s for. One of the strangest aspects of recent years has been that the most buzz has been generated by inserted non-classical events. The Ibiza Prom, Grime Prom, a David Bowie Prom, (a tribute to the late musician notably not paid to Peter Maxwell Davies, who died two months later). These were all successful events, and I have no problem with them being part of it all, but equally, they could all have plausibly taken place elsewhere. Again the question arises: what is the Proms for?

It’s interesting to see how the BBC news website frames the new season. First of all we’re told it will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings. Ok. Well, I’m sure that would have blown Henry Wood’s mind. We all know the BBC loves an anniversary, and this one gives us a fresh excuse for the Planets Suite to make its annual orbit through South Kensington. It provides themes for new commissions, and there’s a concert of Sci-Fi film scores – all good stuff. But commemorating an event that happened 50 years ago…is that what the Proms is for? Then look at who else features in the article, and the highlights go in heavy on names from outside the classical music world, like Nina Simone and Robert MacFarlane. This gives a strange impression for the world’s biggest classical music festival.

Of course, the BBC knows that dedicated Prommers will peruse the full programme of their own volition. So let’s look at what we’ve got. Pleasingly, the recent trend towards a full Mahler cycle every year has been reined in – his fans will have to make do with only two works this time (and the wailing of my tiny violin). Other recent traditions are continued – John Wilson doing what he does so well, the Aurora Orchestra playing another piece from memory (though all the fuss about this continues to elude me). Among the usual classics, there’s a chance to hear some rarities by Weinberg and Glazunov. I am very intrigued by Messiaen’s immense ‘Des canyons aux étoiles’.

There’s so much that’s of such reliable quality. Perhaps, a bit too reliable. Where are the events that make you think ‘wow, that’s brave’? Or ‘that could be a car crash, but also maybe amazing’? A few years ago, the performance of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony was one event that you knew was both a genuine rarity, and logistical spectacle. I’m excited by the prospect of John Luther Adams’s ‘In the Name of the Earth’ for 600 singers, which really suggests a true ‘event’ that speaks of our time.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? In an ideal classical festival, you would want new classical music to make the big headlines. Contemporary composers would loom larger than astronauts in the marketing material. We’d be told their stories, their interests, their ideas, in big letters. I accept there’s a challenge in building an audience for contemporary music, of course, but the BBC is better resourced than anyone to try and do it. 

Since the Albert Hall is at its best with large-scale works, I would love the Proms to hard-sell us big new pieces with big aims, and big risks of failure. Events that really try to ask questions of our time, rather than commemorate events 50 years ago. What risks do we have in this season? The BBC News article speaks of a ‘Will It Go Wrong Prom’. In which…the music collective Solomon’s Knot perform Bach Cantatas from memory. (Seriously though, when did this memorisation schtick become such a big deal? If I wanted Bach with the risk of mistakes I’d stay home and sight-read through the 48. You bet there’d be lots of them!)

Then, of course, there is the hot topic of diversity. The BBC trumpets that the first night is conducted by a woman for the first time – Karina Canellakis – and starts with a new commission by the Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri. Her piece is called Long Is The Journey – Short Is The Memory. And it seems a long journey is sadly what we have until the whole season looks anything like it’s fit for the 21st century. The new commissions by women are all relatively short, and so are the works by historic women. We have tone poems by Sofia Gubaidulina and Dorothy Howell, and at the longer end Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Size isn’t everything, of course, and yes, there is a concert dedicated to Barbara Strozzi in the (smaller) Cadogan Hall, while Bacewicz gets a Piano Quintet performed in the same venue. All good steps. But where are the pieces to make a big statement? To say that THESE VOICES ARE IMPORTANT? Where are the symphonies by Louise Ferranc, Florence Price, or Ruth Gipps (recently recorded by BBC NOW to great acclaim)? Where is the opera or oratorio by a woman, or composer of colour? With so many concerts to programme, why does this still need asking?

Likewise, there is little this year to show that the Proms will take up an increased role in supporting Britain’s classical music heritage, by establishing performance traditions – and crucially, listening traditions – for our many neglected composers. Nobody else is going to look after our music for us, and so many distinctive British voices continue to be ignored by the festival best placed to nurture their legacies, year after year after year.

Still, looking through the programme gave me one moment of light relief. In a move that is excruciatingly #PeakProms, a musical banquet will be laid out for Queen Victoria’s 200th birthday (admittedly I did not see this coming at all, the old girl scurried right under my radar). It will feature Victoria’s very own wince-inducing gold piano, and songs by none other than HRH Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha himself. (Nope! Neither did I!). I fear this event will reach such a critical mass of pure Promitude that it tears a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum and swallows us all.

Not one for my diary, perhaps. But I’m not surprised that the BBC feels the need to try and please everyone. What is such an unwieldy beast as the BBC Proms for? Pity the management – their job is harder than anything NASA have ever attempted.