Why I’m not signing the petition to reinstate Pears’ name to the Britten Foundation

Dropping Benjamin Britten’s partner’s name Pears from a soon to be merged organisation managing the composer’s estate has caused people to get hot under the collar. But it’s not evidence of ‘straight-washing’.

First, the issue.

There’s a petition doing the rounds. It was reported in Gay Star News. Also in the East Anglian Daily Times.

The Britten-Pears Foundation is merging with Snape Maltings in a business development which should really have happened years ago and which benefits both the Britten estate, the Aldeburgh Festival and the Snape operation.

But there’s a problem: the new name for the organisation post-merger isn’t the Britten-Pears Foundation like it used to be, but the Benjamin Britten Foundation.

Gay men are up in arms, so too a number of straight people.

Why? Because Pears – Britten’s lifelong partner and creative muse – isn’t referenced in the future-focussed branding.

A few people registered surprise, some unease (myself included) when the announcement was made. But a few others have run with it, set up a petition. That kind of thing.

The claim? That Britten’s homosexuality is being ‘straight-washed’. The petition’s originator is clear that he doesn’t think that was the intent , but still the claims are made. Dropping Peter Pears from the name of Britten’s estate is evidence of ‘straight-washing’.

Ben Baglio, from Aldeburgh, who launched the petition added: “Britten and Pears’ relationship meant a huge amount to gay people everywhere.
“They were an ‘out’ couple in an era where it was illegal. It seems a bizarre decision to me.”

East Anglian Daily Times, 19 April 2019

Just so that we’re clear, Britten and Pears were far from an ‘out’ couple when the pair were alive. Being ‘out’ as we know it today would have been regarded as a massive risk.

That they lived together was something of an open secret and a reflection of local attitudes relaxing at the time. But being out would have risked arrest.

In addition, speak to anyone who lived in the town when Britten and Pears were alive and stories would be recounted with predictable dewy eyes. Both of the men would have been described as ‘friends’. A running joke ensued amongst the students who visited the Britten-Pears School in the late nineties: a local euphemism begging for ridicule.

As a gay man myself you’d surely expect me to be signing up, banging the drum and making arrangements for the march. Maybe I’m just a shit homosexual. Maybe I’m letting the side down.

But Pears isn’t being ‘dropped’. His name, role, or equivalence isn’t being exorcised. He’s not being overlooked. Noone’s being denied.

Leading on Britten’s name isn’t evidence of low-level homophobia. The two organisations are merging. Implicit in that is the assumption that at some point even Britten’s name will drop from the name.

As far as I can see, what Snape and Aldeburgh need to do is raise the profile of Britten. They need to drive more people to the location the composer adopted as home. Of course, Pears plays a crucial part in Britten’s output and his worldwide reputation, but the likes of Snape and Britten Foundation aren’t selling their product to those in the know, whether they’re classical music enthusiasts, experts or locals.

They’re reaching out to the people who haven’t considered visiting Britten’s home, or the Snape Maltings site. Those people are going to be unaware of who Britten was, and by extension completely unaware of who Pears, his partner, was.

And sure, whilst Pears inspired much of Britten’s work, his legacy – his estate – is Britten’s achievement, fuelled by various muses of which Peter Pears was undoubtedly his most significant. Not featuring Pears in an organisation’s name isn’t a conspiracy, isn’t homophobia, and doesn’t need a petition to turn around either.

BBC Proms 2019 Brochures

Post-BBC Proms 2019 Launch

It’s still a little weird grabbing print from a BBC event.

I look at it and think about how I should be feeling – how I remember feeling.

Then there’s a jolt and I’m reminded how I feel seeing it now – largely anger and disdain. To explain the difference would be massively dull and boring to read. So you know, consider yourself saved.

What’s key here is the unexpected experiences had at this year’s launch event: people coming up to say hello, to introduce friends and colleagues, and to ask when camera rehearsals start for the TV coverage.

Fools.

One or two still don’t realise it was an April Fools Joke; those that did just remind me how much I want to do it.

No matter – that ship has sailed. The bloke producing this year’s coverage is the same bloke who produced UK Eurovision years gone by. So clearly, that’s not going to happen.

I started the day dismissive of this year’s #BBCProms season.

I end the day (with a few glasses of wine inside me) feeling a little more warmly towards what is a fundamentally dull offering.

“It’s the money,” said one orchestra bigwig, “there’s no money for the interesting stuff. Not anymore.”

There needs to be more money for it in future. This year we’re selling the genre short.

First glance at the BBC Proms 2019 Listings

Nearly all of the hopes and dreams listed in my previous blog post have now had line drawn through them. I fear I’m no longer the Proms ideal audience member.

But because its an old familiar for me, I’m going to have a scoot through the this year’s Proms events for anything that takes my fancy and share them here.

Other associated thoughts and feelings included as you would expect and, as others will no doubt roll their eyes at.

Can a seemingly bland season transform itself?

There’s a good reason for taking this systematic approach to documenting thoughts and feelings in response to the Proms. In my experience – this will be the fifteenth consecutive year I’ve blogged about the ‘classical music’ festival – my enthusiasm builds between launch day (today) and First Night (mid-July).

I’m interested in tracking how that enthusiasm changes on the day of launch too, from reading a press release online late at night, to scrolling through the listings first thing in the morning. Does a launch event (this evening) change my outlook? What about when I have the brochure in my hand? And come July, will the words on the page have turned into an uplifting sense of anticipation?

You can’t fake it if you don’t believe it

I’m with Andrew Clements on this. I never really thought I’d say that. I normally kick against what’s said in the ‘mainstream’. But there isn’t anything here that excites or delights. There’s little intrigue. And very little to fuel curiosity. Most programmes feature standard repertory (good for the newcomer to the art form), and whilst there is key performing talent dotted throughout the season, there’s nothing that leaps off the page as a must-attend event. Well, maybe Rattle and the LSO. Maybe the Vienna Philharmonic.

If I was coaching for performance, I’d say ‘fake it until you make it’. Here, I’m of the mind that you can’t fake enthusiasm if you don’t genuinely feel. And so far at 9am on the launch day, I’m not sensing the enthusiasm yet.

Alternative Perspectives

Some of this might be down to any number of alternative perspectives which are worth throwing into the mix here. They are questions and statements which genuinely fascinate me.

I’ll list them. It looks neater that way.

  1. Have I grown out of the Proms?
  2. Was the Proms always ostensibly a gateway to the classical music world only I didn’t realise it 15 years ago?
  3. As I’ve become more familiar with the repertoire, different genres and performers, has the Proms served its purpose for me as an audience member?
  4. The BBC Proms has to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to meet is public service mission.
  5. Am I basically an impossible audience member to serve? I imagine the BBC Press Office would concur.
  6. It’s all about the young people. I’ve moved into the older bracket now, only perhaps I just hadn’t realised it.

Part of a wider strategy

There’s also a line of thought that says that the Proms season is another content block that provides an opportunity to align what’s broadcast with its BBC Sounds strategy. I’ve written about BBC Sounds before and how, broadly speaking, its a technology-based way of changing the way their audiences perceive the BBC.

Radio networks will, as far as I can make out, be phased out, and in its place people will come to the BBC Sounds (or whatever its called then) in search of themed content around programme brands, according to mood, or genre. In this way, building concerts around themes that appeal to a wide audience base is key (this being different from theming concerts around an anniversary or artistic vision). That’s valid, of course. That’s the BBC remaining ensuring it reaches the most people not just, as in the case of the Proms, inside the concert hall.

And this reminds me of another point. The now impossibility of the Proms. It has to sell tickets so that the Licence Fee season subsidy doesn’t increase.

In many respects it should surely be even more of a commercially-rooted. That means ticket sales. That also means programming concerts that people want to buy tickets for. And its got to be content which people want to listen again to because of the content itself, not because its the Proms. Because, the biggest gains are to be found by reaching the majority who aren’t like me or my classical music loving peers.

If you were trying to set up the Proms for the first time today, you probably wouldn’t do it. That’s the impossibility of it. Maintaining the brand means reflecting shifting audience curiosities. And because reach is all important, those shifting curiosities are going to be entirely different from mine.

Good Stuff

Martha Argerich
Legend. I’ve seen her at the Barbican in chamber music. I’ve seen the Netflix documentary made by her daughter. She is a terrifyingly brilliant woman. I’m placing a bet on her concerto appearance being a pre-season artist change.

Leif Oves Andsnes plays Britten’s Piano Concerto
Second only to Steven Osborne playing it at the Proms twelve years ago (thereabouts) Andsnes’ recording of Britten’s concerto is rip-roaring fun.

Conductor Jessica Cottis
She’s featured on a Thoroughly Good Podcast episode over the past few months. Therefore I’d quite like to go along.

Joyce DiDinato singing Berlioz Le Nuits d’Etes
Watched her talking about Le Nuits d’Etes in John Bridcut’s brilliant documentary about Dame Janet Baker. I was sold.

James Ehnes, Royal Academy of Music, Juillard School
I’m including this for four reasons: first, it’s James Ehnes whose playing I fell for at the Verbier Festival a few years back; second, he’s playing Britten’s violin concerto; third, I like the idea of the Royal Academy and Juillard coming together in a concert; and fourth, the Royal Academy were the only organisation to send an embargoed press release about their appearance in the Proms ahead of the season launch (the BBC didn’t – at least not to me) which meant their event gained greater (and well-deserved) prominence as a result. Nice work Royal Academy of Music Press Office. Take tomorrow off. My treat.

Nora Fischer
I’ve interviewed Nora for a Dutch Centre/DG promo last year. She was fascinating. And the album she was promoting then – Hush – remains on my regular playlist. I haven’t seen her in the concert hall before.

Pekka Kuusisto
This might sound a little odd to say, but Kuusisto is the only musician around today who when he plays – no matter what he plays – a charge goes through my body. He is the hottest player with a captivating madness about him I absolutely adore. He could play a C-major scale and I’d be enthralled.

Solomon’s Knot
Under the embarrassing sub-header ‘The Will-It-Go-Wrong-Prom‘ Solomon’s Knot’s are described as singing from memory, people who look you in the eye when they perform and, according to Proms director David Pickard, “They’re a young baroque group, who’ve just sprung up but have quite a big following.” My understanding was that they had been going for quite a few years, and had worked hard to build their audience because of their distinctive and energised approach to performance. Maybe that kind of copy doesn’t really work for the curious audience member. Even so. Solomon’s Knot are brilliant. Saw them last year in Guildhall.

Ulster Orchestra
Good to see the Ulster Orchestra back at the Proms.

Tenebrae
And because I’m a fanboy, seeing Tenebrae doing a Late Night Prom (now renamed as a ‘Late Night Mixtape’ with music that will ‘calm the mind) feels like something I might consider going to. If not, I’ll listen on the radio. Tenebrae are brilliant.

Pre-BBC Proms 2019

Big night tomorrow night. Kinda. I’ve already received one embargoed press release about the BBC Proms (I haven’t read it yet by the way).

So, assuming I might receive another before midnight (unlikely), I figured I’d list my aspirations for this year’s season. They don’t care, obviously. It’s too late to change anything anyway. They’ve not only gone to print but the printers have almost certainly gone to bed.

This year, I’d like the BBC Proms to …

1. Be like it used to be in the Kenyon days

Surprise me. Delight me. Challenge me. Give me stuff to rail against. Don’t make it easy.

2. Not do any cheap tie-ins with record labels or BBC properties

The Proms shouldn’t be about cheap promotion.

3. Tell inspirational stories about the value of classical music

Don’t just say it’s amazing, show how it is. Journalism not marketing. Marketing is boring.

4. Introduce me to something niche

Go on. I dare you.

5. Stop overlooking the likes of me because you think the only way to secure the next generation is to put the next generation on screen

Maturity has value. Heritage counts for something. You saw the Briduct/Baker doc didn’t you?

6. Restyle the Last Night

It’s an embarrassing own goal. An anachronism.

7. Make me feel a part of the Proms again

This one is difficult for the Proms. It’s not all them. It’s partly me too. But for a few years now I’ve felt like a kind of an irrelevance. It’s made me wonder whether you’ve lost touch.

8. Stop assuming that criticism of you as a brand is personal criticism of your team

This. Isn’t. New. Only last week a ‘BBC REPRESENTATIVE ON THE PAYROLL’ took me to task about a tweet I published. I was mortified. It was a very awkward conversation. And it’s the second conversation I’ve had of that ilk. The one behind was about my comments concerning the Eurovision. I shit you not.

The stuff the Proms puts on is not about the people who put it on, it’s about the art. And the art should be open to comment. Because if it isn’t, it’s not really art.

9. Know that the wine (when it’s free) can be mediocre, because that’s not important

Spend the money on the artists. That’s what’s important.

Notre Dame

No one likes a grief tourist. Though in this case, events warrant documentation.

This is known as a blog about classical music. It often features on opera, sometimes the wider arts. From time to time it reflects on culture as well.

The fire of Notre Dame cathedral would be one of those times when something needs documenting under the culture category, though not perhaps for the most obvious reason.

I haven’t been able to look at the imagery from Paris since around 5.15pm BST last night. A live feed across the Paris skyline was just enough to make out the two towers of the cathedral; a reddy-yellow glowing ball; a cloud of thick grey smoke. That was enough for me.

Later, I happened to catch a looping video on Twitter capturing and replaying the moment the cathedral spire collapsed.

I cannot now get that image out of my head. A harrowing sight to replay in your mind’s eye. I cannot begin to think what it feels like to be a Parisian looking at the same sight, or indeed anyone living in France this morning.

It is as though we’ve been rather clumsy. Perhaps even inept. While our attention is diverted and consumed by politics, one of the world’s greatest treasures burns before our eyes.

We cannot make sense of it, nor truly appreciate the value of what has been lost. All we can agree on is that it is within a few short hours pretty much all gone.

I woke up this morning with a weight in my stomach. I haven’t felt like that for a few years now. Images replayed over and over again in my mind. A Sky News alert took me to a new story at the top of which was that footage of the spire collapsing. I closed my phone and resolved to get on with the day.

When I was nine-years old my father had serious accident. He smashed his hip and was hurried transported across our garden into a waiting ambulance and off to hospital. There he underwent hours of emergency surgery. I sang in a school concert that night. I hadn’t seen him since breakfast. Now all I could see in my imagination was him laying on an operating table.

At the time and for many years after I used to critcise myself for being so very morbid. If I didn’t want to imagine him on the operating table with his leg cut open, why on earth was I doing so? There was obviously something wrong with me – I must have wanted to languish in self-pity. I was weak and self-indulgent.

I have no real connection with France. I have no formative experiences in Paris to draw on. I have no desire to demonstrate my knowledge of music, musicians, art or musical instruments inside Notre Dame cathedral. There is no meaningful reason to justify writing about someone else’s trauma. No one likes a grief tourist.

But the sense of loss is palpable. There are images I do not want to see again (though not doubt we will). The destruction, even imagined, is too much to handle. We replay it in a bid to make sense of it. To be accustomed to it.

Yet to do really do that takes time.