Sifting through the BBC Proms 2013 brochure

Katie Derham dressed in blue joined by three other acts for the BBC Proms 2013 press launch. They’re joined by two new recruits enforcing artistic standards throughout this year’s season.

Within seconds of the official press launch of the BBC Proms 2013 this year at 2pm on Thursday 18 April (avid fans of the Proms website will have had access to the programme fifteen minutes before hand when the site was made live), orchestras, performers and various others involved in the eight week long season were announcing on Twitter which concerts they themselves were involved in. Never before had it been made quite so obvious so immediately just how big the Proms season is and how difficult a path it is to navigate through the 75+ concerts available.

In that respect, committing to the entire season is not for the faint-hearted. 75 concerts in the principal venue – the Royal Albert Hall – ranging from standard (popular and sometimes populist) repertoire such as Beethoven, Schumann and Rachmaninov, stopping off at big name brand and network cross-overs like the Doctor Who, 6 Music or Urban Music (1 Xtra) Proms, via niche interests like the Stockhausen Prom. New music – BBC commissions and premieres – are included as in previous years, with a celebration at the end of the season in the form of the customary ‘Last Night‘.

There was a time when such a broad range of programming guaranteed a raised eyebrow from those (usually white-haired) aficionados. Looking over Proms’ brochures from ten years ago for example, shows how concert programmes for the summer season have changed. In 2003 ‘classical music’ predominated; this year sees more varied content. And yet, it now no longer seems unusual to have such a wide range of programming in a season which still describes itself primarily as a ‘classical music festival’. More inventive ways of introducing different audience groups to the Royal Albert Hall have crept into each season, arguably first with the Blue Peter themed concerts in the early 2000s,  John Wilson’s British Film Music Prom and An Evening with Michael Ball in 2007, to a Rodgers and Hammerstein night, a night dedicated to the art of the ukelele to a night of comedy at the Proms in 2011. This year includes another John Wilson concert dedicated to the unsung heroes of 1930s Hollywood, a British film music Prom from the BBC Concert Orchestra and a ‘light organ’ Prom. Storytelling gets a look in a special family matinee.

Proms Press Launch Collaborations between the likes of The Stranglers, Cerys Matthews and London contemporary music orchestra London Sinfonietta in the 6 Music Prom, and the marrying of Frank Zappa’s music and the Aurora Orchestra give some corners of the Proms an edgier feel (or at least as edgy as the Proms – a music festival supported by a broadcaster with a remit to reach as many people as possible can be). What’s interesting is that programmes feel less to me now like desperate attempts to appear more relevant, but part-reverential and part-good business sense in a world where audiences, their interests and the way they consume entertainment is considerably more fragmented.

It seems for example only right that we laud audience-passions from the 1960s in the form of Zappa or The Stranglers and fuse them with present-day orchestras venerating the work of the former, marketing the work of the latter and amplifying the original ethos of the season both are appearing in. The fact that some of these endeavours will be broadcast on the audience’s home radio network for example, only serves to underline how similar experimental collaborations with artists, orchestras and radio networks (for example, the Bond night on Radio 5 Live and similarly the Pet Shop Boys gig with the BBC Philharmonic on Radio 2 last year) have been deemed a success by the Beeb.

Of course, for some these seemingly ‘unusual’ events like are the ones which inevitably raise the eyebrows because they jar with our perception of what the Proms is. But maybe that perception needs to change. In 2003 saw one late night ‘Late Junction’ Prom catering to music other than ‘classical’ in the entire 72 night season; this year there are 11 events under the banner of ‘Diverse Musical Offerings‘ in addition to the ‘Key Strands’ and ‘New Music‘. Is it time classical music needs to be put back into its box .. or at least told to share things a bit?

There are revenue implications for this continuing development. With a broader range of audience groups potentially buying tickets, there is – surely – a better crack to be had at the revenue whip. Greater choice means more people feel a part of a large-scale, world-renowned festival such as the Proms. And given the entire season costs £9 million (the Licence Fee subsidises ticket prices by £5 million; ticket sales amount to £4 million), maintaining the revenue stream is important.

BBC Proms ticket prices from 2003 (back) and 2013 (front).
BBC Proms ticket prices from 2003 (back) and 2013 (front).

One of the Proms’ key USPs costs the same amount, of course. A ticket purchased at the end of a potentially long day queue for the Arena or the Gallery will still set you back a mere £5, the same as it did eight years ago. There are in the region of 1000 tickets available. That’s a key point. Interestingly this year, I see the option to buy not only season tickets for Promming (you’ll ‘kind of’ get a guaranteed place in the arena with a season ticket but you’ll still need to queue to get a place in the Arena on the night), there’s also the option to buy weekly tickets to the Arena at a slightly more manageable amount of £32-£50. The overwhelming message here seems to be ‘its affordable to get in to the Royal Albert Hall, there’s greater choice and you needn’t feel intimidated’.

The key concerts are there to pull in the core audience too. A week of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, a Tchaikovsky symphony cycle, a nod to Verdi in his bicentenary year and a consistent Britten presence throughout the season in addition to telling the British composer’s place in 20th century classical music through the music of his contemporaries like Tippett and Imogen Holst. The stalwarts of Stravinsky’s Rite and Beethoven 9 (a free Prom) make their traditional annual appearance. Indeed, as I start to pick out some of the programmes I’d normally gravitate to (ie British, romantic, orchestral and then anything else) I find it almost impossible to pick out any strong threads making it still possible to approach the season with a serendipitous air.

What I notice most of all (and am surprisingly OK with) is the variety in the season. Either that says that I’ve grown as an individual and shaken off my control issues, or that I’ve gained a deeper understanding on how the Proms as a whole fits into the BBC’s wider activities. This year, for example, it is obvious how much the Proms is being described as a ‘broadcast festival’ – Director Roger Wright described as such during the press launch. There are more broadcasts on BBC Four and a highlights / magazine programme scheduled for BBC Two on Saturdays. Each concert is broadcast on Radio 3 (and various other networks where appropriate). This feels like a far more joined up approach and a considerably better communicated (in terms of thinking) season too, vital no doubt as the BBC approaches charter renewal in 2015.

Roger Wright at the BBC Proms launch
Roger Wright talks to attendees at the Proms press launch. I spoke to a few people present and left wondering whether my love of classical music was little out of kilter with the kind of audiences the Proms is trying to appeal to.

But, what I’m left with is a real hope that – as a primarily classical music fan, happy to be introduced to and bask in other genres – I don’t end up feeling alienated by the way in which my core repertoire as an audience member is presented. Inadvertently or otherwise, I had a flash of how unusual I’m probably seen given my love of not only the repertoire but also the venue, the concert-going etiquette and associated writings around the concert experience.

One person I spoke to about Benjamin Britten in his centenary year during the Proms press launch (pictured above) reminded me once again to what extent there’s a relative ease and preference in some quarters (usually those without a musical training/education) to reject serious study or considered reflection of the composer’s life and work in favour of the superficial. It was as though there is an assumption that anyone who wants to scratch the surface and dig deeper into a composer’s work is by definition a nerd and not catered for at something like the Proms. There were moments during the conversation where I felt almost embarrassed for wanting to be reverential both to the repertoire and the composer, almost as though it was me who was on entirely the wrong track about this because of my comparatively in-depth knowledge.

What I fear is that this approach may gain traction. I embrace developing ideas which challenge heritage-based perceptions and ultimately modernise. But only if when striving for greater range and inclusivity, I don’t end up feeling increasingly more distant from a venue and a season I hold dear to my heart (largely because of the formative experiences I had there as a teenager myself). I hope that any fears I have reflect a misheard conversation, one where tone and inflection was masked by the hubub of the journos and critics burbling to one another around us.

If I’m right in my interpretation though, the hurt will go deep. For many classical music fans – for right or wrong – the Proms represents an annual celebration of the music they love, music they had been introduced to as children – the same music they may have heard live for the first time as teenagers at the Proms. The inevitable sense of ownership those individuals have of the repertoire, the composer, the venue or the season might be dismissed by some who think its no longer a group to cater for at the Royal Albert Hall as no longer desired. Speaking for myself, I’d feel like a part of my core had been ripped out if I didn’t have a place there either in concert programmes, in the hall or listening in on the radio.

None of this will stop me from engaging with this year’s Proms season. The tastily designed brochure presents a challenge, which in itself offers something to bounce off. And as any blogger will testify, we all need something to bounce off if we are to write. I’ll be posting some recommended concerts to book for/attend in the next week or so. Do be sure to drop by.

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