Tuesday, 28 April 2009

On The Proms...

It’s amazing to think that the Royal Albert Hall is hosting its 115th season of ‘Proms’ concerts this year… The BBC Proms – as they’ve been known for sometime now – is without question the highlight of the Classical calendar in the UK. The world’s most accomplished musicians have descended on London year after year, performing music both classic and new to packed houses during the summer months. There’s a certain buzz about a Prom – and I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few – that is somewhat difficult to explain. The experience of sitting beneath that vast dome seems somehow to unite those who have gathered to celebrate and join in the spirit and fellowship of music – okay, perhaps a touch over the top? Vomit inducing? Maybe… but it’s true; there’s a definite feeling of delight in that place, at those times. It’s certainly twee, but quintessentially British.

To extend the borders of the Proms – which of course are ever so London-centric – the BBC has found ways of bringing the experience to those outside the M25. Proms concerts are often broadcast on big screens in open spaces around the country, while some regional ‘Last Night of the Proms’ concerts have proven an interesting, and indeed interactive idea. Rolling out the carpet for the main event though have been the BBC Proms Preview Concerts, which are currently doing the rounds in the South of England (and only the South of England it seems…). I attended last night’s event at St. George’s Bristol, an all-too-hidden gem at the heart of the city, where the BBC Singers gave a free mini-concert of music by composers being represented this year at the Proms.

Music by Holst, Bach, Stravinsky and Mendelssohn were just some of the treats sung out by the neatly pressed troupe; their fluid – and at times powerful – voices ringing out perfectly in the fine acoustic of that beautiful space. Though brief at around forty minutes, the ensemble absolutely enraptured, with their performance of Stanford’s ‘The Blue Bird’ a captivating highlight featuring solo soprano Margaret Feaviour, while McCabe's 'I Sing of a Maiden' offered the newest composition in the selection and featured four soloists, including the very handsome (and equally talented) Christopher Bowen. The presentation ended with a wonderful tudor madrigal composed by none other than Henry VIII. With additional rhythmic hand percussion, ‘Pastyme with good companye’ left us in fine fettle indeed.

Proms Director and controller of BBC Radio 3 Roger Wright introduced the event, using the time of course to give us a brief insight into this year’s line-up. Mr Wright also used the opportunity to do a little market research, discovering to his delight that a good many of those in the audience had attended Proms concerts in the past. He seemed very pleased indeed, which he would be… I was pleased too, but also found myself pondering the demographics. Here was a room full of white middle class people who attend classical concerts on a very regular basis. It’s hardly a varied slice of the populace and if you’d given out tickets on the street and asked those people the same question, I know the response would be very different.

The remit of the Proms, as laid out by its founder Sir Henry Wood 115 years ago, is ‘Quality and Accessibility’ and our host assured us that this was still the case. Wood’s term certainly goes hand in hand with the BBC’s own of ‘Inform, Educate and Entertain’ and both attempt to work together to present a stunning array of talent (Quality) at an affordable price (Accessibility). Mr Wright was quick to assure us that the Proms was in no way a big money maker for the corporation, though he did reveal that a staggering £6m of licence-fee money goes into the production of the 58 days of live music – all of which is broadcast in some form - with ticket sales apparently accruing just £3m of that in return. So is it worth it? Well that’s an interesting question…

As a music lover, and someone who especially appreciates live orchestral music, then yes I think it undoubtedly is. Music is food for the soul and I can’t think of a better feast than the BBC Proms, but is everyone really getting a piece of the pie? Classical music inevitably draws a certain type of crowd and despite the best efforts of those involved, that’s the way it will always be. Each year there are a handful of Proms that go beyond the traditional, Classical idiom, with Children being the target for many of them. Whether it’s through Blue Peter or Doctor Who, the BBC try – and succeed – in getting young people through the door. Having been involved in the latter Doctor Who Prom I know first hand how it can work… Time will tell though whether that show, and that music will draw any of those concertgoers back again. This year’s programme sees many delights of course, and the BBC has seen fit to push their programming of ‘Indian Voices’ and Bollywood music, not to mention the appearance of Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, whose orchestral work ‘Popcorn Superhet Receiver’ is being premiered – both in Week 5. Another crowd pleaser is sure to be ‘A Celebration of MGM Film Musicals’ in Week 3, while I myself am looking forward to hearing music by Michael Nyman and Philip Glass later in the season.

These popular ‘shows’ overshadow the rest of the events – and I’m doing the same thing right now - but it proves a point that for some reason advertising the fact that all of Stravinsky’s ballet scores are being performed this season (which they are) won’t draw a ‘new’ crowd like that of a Bollywood spectacle, or a token rock star. The producers and those media vents in their pockets are perhaps somewhere between a rock and a hard place, because they need to be seen to be trying to attract a cross-section of society.

Is it enough though I wonder? The Proms Preview Concerts, such as the one I attended last night, take in just three other places: London (!), Brighton and Bath… that’s hardly a cross section. Televising concerts in open spaces around the country? Nice idea, but how about actually stage some of the Proms concerts at venues across the country; there are many fine halls that would suit, and a good deal closer to the homes of ordinary people who might think twice about travelling to London – whether the ticket itself is affordable or not. Quality? Certainly. Accessible? Not quite enough.

For more information on this year’s BBC Proms programme visit www.bbc.co.uk/proms.

With thanks to St George’s Bristol – http://www.stgeorgesbristol.co.uk/.

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