At the start of this year’s BBC Proms season I set out some questions I wanted to ask myself. I’ve been blogging about the summer-long season for ten years now. 2016 felt like the right time to reflect on some of those questions and see what emerged as a result.
The questions I posed were: how has the Proms …
- … deepened my appreciation of classical music?
- … changed in the past ten years? How has my perception and understanding of it changed?
- … changed me? What is my relationship with the Proms now? How do I identify with it?
I was originally going to include all the answers in one complete post. But, the responses turned out to be a little longer than planned. I figured I’d publish three separate posts between now and the end of this year’s season.
For each question, I’ve set out the main response in bold and expanded on the thought.
Over the past ten years, the BBC Proms has widened my knowledge repertoire – every year is a marathon listening project.
This is something I think a lot of people underestimate about the Proms. There’s an assumption that those who love classical music must have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertoire already. Not necessarily so. The Proms exposes you to a great many more unknown works than you’d normally choose to listen to. Although of course, the more familiar you become with a composer’s output, the more difficult it is for the Proms to surprise you.
Not necessarily so. The Proms exposes you to a great many more unknown works than you’d normally choose to listen to. Although of course, the more familiar you become with a composer’s output, the more difficult it is for the Proms to surprise you.
The BBC Proms has helped me understand the importance of connection between performer and audience in live performance.
When I first started listening to the Proms ten years back my appreciation of live performance was wrapped up in the enormity of the Royal Albert Hall, the sense of occasion it created and how that was conveyed implicitly via broadcast.
Ten years later, as a result of attending other festivals and concerts often more intimate settings, I’ve come to understand the idea that there is a meta-conversation between performer and audience which is what creates the atmosphere.
It’s this I’m always searching for as a listener. In recent years I’ve sought out the silences – those moments when audience and performer are suspended in a kind of ecstatic bliss as a result of the performance we’re all participating in.
Listening to live classical music has become an increasingly personal experience, so much so that I’ve strived to rid myself of distractions.
A few years back I made a conscious effort to not get a programme book for each concert. It saved me money and helped focus my listening. The effect was to increase concentration. Now, when I listen on the radio or watch on TV I’m increasingly wanting an unmediated concert experience. Cinema relays of opera or classical music concerts are often the best in this respect.
I’ve become more confident about listening to unknown or unfamiliar classical music works…
… such that I’m quite happy to ‘explore’ of my own bat, so long as the programme is served up for me. What interests me now is the personal reaction to a work is. My relative ease with the unfamiliar casts me adrift from those who see the concert hall and classical music repertoire as a bewildering experience. My feeling now is that merely being open to new experiences and maintaining a mindfulness when you’re sat listening to classical music is the only thing newcomers ‘need’.
What I’m listening out for in a concert has changed dramatically.
I used to listen out for mistakes or a lack of power, especially during the years when I Prommed in the arena. Now I’m thankfully) less judgmental and less of an arsehole.
With familiar works I’m listening out for how a performance is different, and then trying to identify what the defining characteristics of that performance (good or bad) are. With new works it’s about listening out for textures, and recognising what emotional effect they have on me when I hear them – a prime example was some of stunning string writing in Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow at the Ulster Orchestra Prom this year.
The BBC Proms has introduced me to Mahler, Stockhausen and Messiaen’s music
Messiaen and Stockhausen were two composers who I avoided when I was studying music at university. But, Proms ‘occasions’ prompted me to reassess the composers. Similarly, if it wasn’t for the BBC Proms I wouldn’t now relish performances of Mahler’s music. I used to fear Mahler, thinking he was complicated, rich and impenetrable. Now I’ve become accustomed to his pallete and want to know more about him and his repertoire. I had already explored all of Mahler’s symphony following some Proms back in 2011/12. But, the pivotal point was hearing the World Orchestra for Peace with Gergiev playing Mahler 6 in 2014. It ended with me hugging the person next to me in the auditorium. Fortunately, I did know her.
The BBC Proms has enhanced my appreciation of contemporary music
The Proms very quickly presented contemporary music as something which didn’t come with the baggage or expectation of older works – that made contemporary music more accessible. Not everyone will agree with me.
The Proms has also helped me identify a paradox in the classical music industry
Classical music is – like opera or theatre – a multi-layered cultural experience. But, being knowledgable or an expert in classical music is often seen as self-aggrandising; it creates a perceived air of exclusivity. This perceived nerdiness is seen as an enemy of accessibility. People judge you negatively if you have knowledge or expertise in a subject. The cognascenti will also judge you negatively if you don’t demonstrate your knowledge and experience.
How classical music is discussed rightly demands knowledge and experience
But, that knowledge and experience has to be conveyed in an accessible way to the very audience which the classical music world needs in order to survive. Communicating with that audience understandably demands that knowledge and experience is downplayed. Understanding where you are as an individual are on that spectrum is key; I’ve no idea where I am on it. But I do know that sometimes, as an audience member and a writer, I feel quite lonely, sometimes even directionless in that world because I’m not entirely sure where I reside on the line.
Ten years ago I set out making online content which sought to demystify classical music by suggesting that a lack of encyclopaedic knowledge wasn’t necessarily a bar to the concert hall. It angered some people. One person posted a link to a video I’d made under the damning title “Licence Fee Wasted On Backstage Video”.
The classical music world is a phenomenally difficult one to break into, occupy, and maintain the respect of your peers. I’m not convinced I’m there yet. I’ll cover that in a later post.
Classical music costs money and it’s woefully under-funded
The Proms showcases some of the greatest performers across the world. It is the highest profile platform for a great many classical performers and groups. And yet, the classical music industry as a whole is often unfairly attacked by the ignorant as being elitist and irrelevant. The BBC Proms has, on a personal level, helped me understand how important advocacy, participation and, ultimately, money is in music education and the industry’s future.