Monday, 18 July 2011

The Proms and their Discontents

The 2011 Proms got off to a typically noisy start at the weekend, with both the Glagolitic Mass and the Gothic Symphony making appearances over the course of the first few days. Opinions, from critics and web-savvy punters alike, have been copious, and discussion of the various merits of these performances and works, especially the Brian, have been dominating the classical music corners of the social media.
To my mind, that is just as it should be. The relationship between the BBC and the Proms has pluses and minuses for the festival, but the one thing that the Corporation is really good at is publicity. Staging large and rare works is part of this of course, it means there is something substantial, unusual, and hopefully worthwhile to tweet and facebook about. But what sort of responses should the Beeb be eliciting? Bob Shingleton makes an interesting point on his blog today, that twitter responses to live performances are always broadly positive and usually quite facile. Or, in his own words: "as Tweets Law states, if you give one hundred chimpanzees instruments, put them on a concert platform and broadcast the result, 95% of Twitter users will give the performance a rave review. Which means classical music must beware of programming for the Twitter audience."
Of course, the programming we are talking about, and the online responses to it, are only those of the opening weekend. There can be little doubt that the best point in a festival to put on the attention-grabbing concerts is at the beginning. If the result is that a large army of tweeps continues its commentary to cover the less sensationalist programmes further down the line, that can only be a good thing.
Another discontented voice heralding the start of the Proms-bashing season is that of Damien Thompson in the Telegraph. He has been charged by the paper to put across their traditional anti-Beeb and anti-subsidy views in the form of an article questioning the amount of licence fee money that goes into the festival. The views expressed are not new, and in the face of the extravagance of the Proms' opening weekend, it is likely that Thompson's article is going to find some sympathy, at least with Telegraph readers.
Just one last discontent to mention, Jessica Duchen, who writes on her blog today about the tendency for the Proms to programme "white elephants", as is amply demonstrated by the choice of the Gothic Symphony. Her point, and it is a fair one, is that the Proms has a tradition of unearthing neglected large-scale works, which tend to have the effect of demonstrating exactly why nobody else had been performing them in the first place. It's good the Proms can take these risks, she concludes, but "You need to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince."
My own biggest gripe with the Proms is the fact that they take place in the acoustical catastrophe that is the Albert Hall. Last year, there were a number of calls in the weeks leading up to the start of the Proms for the BBC to consider moving the event to a hall were the audience can actually hear what is going on. The Festival Hall seems to be the main contender here, although that acoustic isn't ideal either. There have been no such calls this year, which is a shame, because something needs to be done, and fast.
On the other hand, the Proms has a distinctive identity because of a range of factors, which on their own would each seem to hinder rather than help the festival. The BBC will never move the Proms to the RFH, because the Albert Hall has a capacity for immense audiences, and part of the justification for spending so much on, say, the Gothic Symphony, or appearances by the world's greatest orchestras towards the end of the season, is the sheer number of people who can experience these events live. (I say "experience" rather than "hear" – there is no point in pretending that an audience member in the gods of the Albert Hall is going to hear the Vienna Phil, for example, in the same way as they would at the Musikverein.)
Putting on works like the Gothic Symphony, Mahler 8, the Glagolitic Mass etc. has to be a central plank of the Proms offering, because large-scale choral performances is the one thing that the Albert Hall is good for. These are works that you are definitely going to hear from the back of the hall, the tuttis anyway. Bob Shingleton is right that there is a risk of appealing to the lowest critical denominator by appealing to the twitter response. But large-scale works, performed in huge halls to huge audiences is all about collective appreciation. Even when programming a work as obscure as the Gothic Symphony, the goal is mass appeal. And even if, as Jessica Duchen notes, the result is a series of white elephants, even the discussion and responses that these performances elicit justifies them to some extent.
Which is where the BBC and their deep pockets come into the equation. Clearly, you can't put on a performance of anything on this kind of scale without significant subsidy. The two obvious alternatives are to only perform small-scale works or to scrap the whole thing. Given what the Albert Hall acoustic does to chamber ensembles, I'd be inclined to the latter option. That in itself doesn't justify the BBC's profligacy, nor provide a meaningful defence against Damian Thompson's criticisms. However, the abysmal acoustic of the Albert Hall may offer one good reason why the BBC is the ideal organiser for an event like the Proms. The Corporation's sound engineers do wonders to make the broadcast sound from the Proms sound good. I understand that digital reverb is used, and under the circumstances that seems a sensible option. In previous years, I have on many occasions been to the Proms, sat at the back and heard nothing, then gone home to listen to the broadcast on Radio 3 to find out what I missed.
For all the pomp and circumstance of the Proms as live events, they only really do the performers and the music justice when heard at home. From that point of view, those in the hall are basically a studio audience. They are missing out on the full musical experience, but they are giving each of the events the atmosphere it needs with their famous enthusiasm. But the biggest winners, from a musical point of view, are the radio listeners and TV viewers. So why shouldn't they contribute to the costs via the licence fee?

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