BBC Proms 2017: Thoroughly Good Feedback

Imagine if you could email the Director of the BBC Proms to share your thoughts about the ‘world’s greatest classical music festival’?

To give feedback on what you liked, what needs to change, without fear of a line manager breathing down your neck and telling you off?

Well, now that I’ve left the BBC, I can.

 

We forget what we have

Friends and associates commented on how the season appeared to lack musical ambition. That assessment maybe fair – I’m not entirely sure what the reliable measures of ambition actually are. I know that, I’m relieved the Doctor Who Prom is no more, and that the desperate radio network tie-ins have been replaced.

But, the Proms needs to retain a spirit of discovery. The cries of ‘lack of ambition’ at launch were, I think, more to do with artistic decisions making the season appear as though it lacked boldness.

Being bold means programming more seemingly uncompromising works, challenging assumptions and perceptions about composers, perhaps even introducing more obscure works. My fear is that individual concert programmes could end up being driven by Box Office and audience reach, just at the time when classical music’s reputation could be in the ascendancy (what with Rattle returning to the LSO, for example).

That said, lets not forget what we have. The season did still succeed in introducing me to music I wouldn’t normally have sought out.

The real highlights for me was the music by Sir James MacMillan, the Glass and Shankar Passions album performed live by the Britten Sinfonia, music by Mark Simpson, Freiburg’s Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, and John Adams’ breath-taking Naïve and Sentimental Music from the Philharmonia.

What the Proms has successfully (and unexpectedly) done this year is introduce me to new artists and new performance styles. I’ve returned to Spotify, Tidal and Idagio in search of these new groups and artists in the hope of discovering more of their work. So, you know, that’s good.

Download to own

There have been a handful of outstanding performances in this year’s season. Pittsburgh’s Mahler 1, Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s Schumann 2, BBC Philharmonic’s Tchaikovsky 6, LSO’s Gurreleider, and Aurora’s brilliant Beethoven 3, to name a few. Live performance and in particular the unique atmosphere a Proms audience creates means I as a listener want to own that event in high-quality audio.

Make performances available to buy after the event on MP3, WAV, and lossless audio. If you’re making live broadcasts available in lossless audio, then the technology is available to make them available as FLAC files. I’d happily buy that over and above my Licence Fee.

That probably means building agreements into contracts when orchestras and artists are signed up for a season. But that’s just having a difficult conversation with someone, isn’t it? Seems like a no-brainer.

We need to ditch the tagline

I’m not entirely clear how we can describe the BBC Proms as ‘the world’s greatest classical music festival’ anymore. Even when using the broadest terminology, the season isn’t just classical music.

The content doesn’t go deep enough

Broadcasting and digital content doesn’t go deep enough into the subject matter. There is a fear of going into too much detail, built on an assumption that the public just won’t understand the technicalities of music-making, or writing, or the arts in general, and so we should probably avoid over-complicating things and keep it all very light.

It’s all a bit embarrassing really.

I’m tired of hearing knowledgeable and passionate presenters apologetically preface detail and insights with a contextualising phrase, eg “Just to get technical.” Even worse, hearing presenters explain to listeners how long in minutes the Proms commission as though to reassure the audience that ‘it will be over soon’.

Digital fears expertise in the music world, because everyone is essentially terrified of alienating a potential new audience. But the flipside is that everything is superficial, and expertise is either hidden away or apologised for.

And don’t anyone ever refer to the conductor on stage as ‘Maestro’ any more. It’s an archaic and patriarchal term which feels out of place with present-day thinking. It’s also a bit smug.

Some concerts were under-rehearsed

I won’t name those events as that would be a little mean-spirited, but it was possible to tell which of those large-scale events didn’t have enough rehearsal in the run-up to performance day or in the Albert Hall. I could hear the effects in rough performances both in terms of intonation, and ensemble. If there are to be large-scale events then more time needs to be programmed in for rehearsals, especially for more inexperienced groups.

I didn’t listen to the lossless broadcast

The high quality lossless broadcast was advertised incessantly – I imagine the presenters got quite bored of talking about it.

I didn’t listen because it wasn’t especially accessible. I appreciate it was only available on the BBC’s experimental platform ‘Taster’, but I couldn’t play that in my Connected TV’s browser, nor on any of the browsers I had on my phone, iPad or laptop.

Why do we need to keep hearing that ‘BBC Proms is part of BBC Music’?

I understand that BBC Music as a brand is new and is very important to the BBC’s future plans for monetisation.

But the more and more I heard ‘BBC Proms is part of BBC Music’ on-air I started to wonder whether the BBC Proms as a brand was being subsumed into something much-bigger (with a considerably less evocative title).

I’m sure no-one would want the BBC Proms brand to be subsumed into anything else. I’m sure no-one will let that happen. No way.

This is what I really want next year

  • Programme events which are arresting, challenging, and thought-provoking. Be bold.
  • Don’t programme any Rachmaninov – getting a bit bored of him
  • Don’t go to any more external venues than you have already.
  • More avant-garde and minimalism please
  • Make a live audio feed available from every Prom concert online without any kind of presenter track. Include the auditorium ambience during the interval.
  • Commit to monetising individual events with download to own
  • Keep the listings printed on heavy paper in the Proms brochure from now on please

Here’s an idea for nothing

For those events when the TV crew aren’t producing something for broadcast on BBC One, Two or Four, provide a live stream on the BBC iPlayer app.

Install the same camera set-up as say Medici TV or RCM Studios deploy, and produce a very straightforward, basic live TV relay that can be accessed via the BBC iPlayer app every night.

It doesn’t need a presenter track – just relay the stage and the audience. Then monetise access to that portion of the BBC iPlayer app.

 

Obviously. These are all wild stupid ideas.

Because, what do I know?

But remember, if any of these suggested developments end up in next year’s Proms, then I was the originator. Don’t want the wrong people taking the credit, after all.

Baritone Julien Van Mellaerts wins Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition 2017

John Gilhooly, Director, Wigmore Hall, was characteristically bullish in his speech at this year’s Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition 2017 earlier this evening.

I’m glad so many of you stayed for the prize giving.

Some commentators insist that the song recital is living on borrowed time.

They point to patchy programming at leading concert venues and the incompatibility of the modern digital world with narrowing attention spans with deep listening to refined settings of poetic texts.

However one thing is for one certain. The art of the song recital is alive and flourishing in Wignmore Street and in music schools all over the world.

We are not striving to preserve an art form rather we want to unlock one fo the richest stores of human creativity and to share its contents with the largest possible audience.

Following Ralph Kohn’s £1.3m investment in the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition, John Gilhooly confirmed that plans for next year’s event with new supporters will be announced in October.

First Prize

Julien Van Mellaerts baritone

Second Prize

John Brancy baritone

Third Prize

Josh Quinn baritone

Pianist’s Prize

Ian Tindale

Jean Meikle Prize for a Duo

Gemma Summerfield soprano and Sebastian Wybrew piano

Richard Tauber Prize for the best interpretation of Schubert Lieder

Clara Osowski voice

Watch the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition 2017 final on demand on YouTube

Pettman Ensemble at St John’s Smith Square play Lilburn and Schumann

If you’re going to St John’s Smith Square for chamber music, be sure to sit in a seat in the first five rows. The acoustic – called upon for numerous landmark recordings – will deliver on its promise. Your proximity to the stage will mean you experience the visceral qualities of the music as though you were a performer yourself.

That said, if you do choose to sit that close, don’t for God’s sake take out a notebook and pen, and start making notes during the performance. Bad form.

The Pettman Ensemble – billed as ‘a flexible touring ensemble affiliated to the Pettman National Junior Academy of Music at the University of Auckland’ (my, that’s a mouthful) – consisted of Julia Park (viola), Benedict Lim (violin), Stephen De Pledge (piano), Edith Salzmann (cello), and Royal Academy of Music head of strings and former RPO leader Clio Gould (violin).

Lim – a slight, unassuming but conscientious performer – opened the concert with a rarely heard but strangely familiar sounding work by New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn.

This was an unfussy performance that allowed a warm, rich and sonorous tone to shine. Some moments saw the solo line battle with the piano accompaniment, but Benedict was clearly at ease conjuring a range of colours and moods that belied his age.

Some top notes lacked commitment, but this remained an endearing introduction to a captivating work.

Schumann’s Piano Quintet Op.44 was a gloriously ebullient affair throughout. Exquisite, sometimes heartbreaking moments followed in the second movement with electrifying tremolandos from Lim. This was the turning point in the performance. Smiles abounded on stage. Reverie followed.

A ravishing lunchtime treat from a hard-working hungry bunch of musicians.

 

 

Armonico Consort perform Monteverdi Vespers at St John’s Smith Square

Warwick-based Armonico Consort begin a tour of performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, with a concert in Yeovil’s Octagon Theatre on Friday 15th September.

The group’s London date on Wednesday 4 Octboer forms part of the St John’s Smith Square 2017/18 season.

There’s been a considerable number of 450th anniversary-related events for Monteverdi this year. The 1610 Vespers – the composer’s greatest and career-enabling work – feature heavily in events.

As Gramophone points out, our present-day appreciation of Monteverdi is a relatively recent thing, with the first public performances in the 1930s. The subsequent history is a record of how early music performance practice developed.

Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra will be joined by members of the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, and will be directed by Christopher Monks.

The Bournemouth Symphony Youth Chorus will join the group for the Friday 6 October date in Poole.

Yeovil, The Octagon Theatre, Friday 15 September 2017
Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick on Saturday 16 September 2017
Malvern Theatres, Malvern, Saturday 23 September
St John’s Smith Square, London, Wednesday 4 October 2017
Lighthouse, Poole, Friday 6 October 2017

All performances start at 7.30pm

Further information available on www.armonico.org.uk

25 years of Classic FM

Classic FM celebrates 25 years on-air this week.

I remember tuning in to listen to the station on the first day it broadcast – 7 September 1992. My birthday. The day I was doing a long shift on my holiday job at nearby Centre Parcs in Elveden. (I was a kitchen porter, if you’re interested in the detail.)

There was a sense of excitement about the launch of a new radio station, similar to the buzz when Channel 4 started ten years before. A moment in broadcasting history.

I don’t remember ever listening to Radio 3 before Classic FM started. Orchestral music was a big part of my life thanks to County Youth Orchestra and my university studies, but that hadn’t translated into dedicated Radio 3 listening. I didn’t start listening to Radio 3 in earnest for another 13 years.

Approachable, undemanding, and glossy

Classic FM started as it meant to go on: approachable, undemanding, and glossy.

We didn’t strike up an especially strong relationship. Listening to commercial radio – Classic was the first national commercial radio station – seemed like another world with different rules, the equivalent of a long-lost aunt turning up to a family reunion in an outfit that looked entirely out of place.

As a new listener, I wanted to form as tight a bond with Classic FM as I had done with Radio 1 during the summer of ’87, when I’d ended up listening to the station religiously throughout the day from Simon Mayo at breakfast until I’d heard the end of Newsbeat at 6pm.

But, Classic failed to win me over. It wasn’t an instant friend. It seemed to dart around everywhere. It sounded shiny. It overlooked the sense of occasion I had thrilled at whenever I played in a concert. It all seemed a bit brutal and throwaway. Reading presenter Petroc Trelawney’s recollections of Classic’s first station manager Michael Bhukt’s direction regarding how to back announce works on-air, perhaps my reaction as a listener wasn’t entirely surprising.

I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was worth investing in as a listener. Should I make more of an effort or just abandon it?

More radio stations means more exposure for classical music

When I was working with the English Symphony Orchestra in 1995, then the value of Classic FM became more apparent.

Janet Ritterman’s Arts Council of England National Review of Orchestral Provision acted as a primer for anyone joining orchestral management in 1995. It became clearer to me then reading it just how broadcasting and recorded music was vital in the classical music ecosystem. The addition of Classic FM in 1992 had clearly provided a much-needed outlet for a wider range of recorded music.

More radio stations playing more classical music meant the classical music ecosystem was supported. Playing music that didn’t make too many demands on the listener made it possible for that ecosystem to exist. Listeners wanted to listen. Advertisers wanted to advertise. Performers wanted exposure. Everyone’s a winner.

Those that snipe need to stop

I will always be a big advocate of Classic FM. I admire the way it knows exactly what it is, and that it’s messaging to the wider industry is resolutely unambiguous. In being present on the scene, it’s opened up a genre to a much-wider audience.

The challenge it faces is the same as the challenge it faced when it launched: those that snipe at it compare it to Radio 3 making the implicit assumption that Classic should be the gateway to cultural enlightenment, and berating it because it rarely is.

It’s an unfair and unrealistic assumption.

Ivan Hewitt wrote about the station in the Telegraph on 28 August:

“For many classical music lovers, the success of Classic FM is a sign that we’ve lost our cultural bearings. We’re no longer sure what classical music is, so millions of listeners can accept the rag-bag of classical lollipops, film scores and video games that Classic |that, it peddles the idea that classical music is good only for making you feel relaxed. It’s a retreat, a rest home of the soul, when the hard living of the day is done.

What really rubs salt in the wound, is that a much better alternative lies at hand, a mere twiddle of the tuning dial away. That alternative is a magnificent state‑funded classical music broadcaster, in the shape of BBC Radio 3.” 

The quote appears harsh, but Hewitt’s piece goes on to present a reasonably balanced view, giving a platform to the entrepreneurial Station Manager Sam Jackson, and his former boss and now Arts Council Chief Exec Darren Henley. They clarify the point that most misunderstand. Classic FM isn’t in competition with Radio 3 – both stations are going after entirely different audiences who listen for different reasons. Classic is far more closely aligned to Radio 2.

More importantly, Classic FM tells its listeners how they’re going to feel when they hear a piece of music. That means there’s a guarantee on the listening investment, even if that is at the expense of discovering our own individual and often complex emotional reactions to a work of art.

A powerful brand

Recognise too the power of the Classic FM brand.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will be playing the station’s 25th anniversary concert on Thursday this week. After that the station is partnering with the orchestra in a series of Friday concerts later in the year.

Seeing the Classic FM branding next to a concert listing gives a potential ticket buyer an easy way of determining whether the event is for them. Ticket selling is made easier with that branding – more powerful than any concert synopsis.

In digital terms too, I’ve always been impressed with Classic FM.

Knowing what you are makes creating content to support that vision a whole lot easier than trying to be something it knows it’s not. Radio 3 has done the latter on-air frequently (though less so now), and is still partial to doing so online. When Classic FM tries to do the same it never really feels quite so awkward.

Now for the honest bit

Full transparency though. I don’t listen to Classic FM that much. I did a few years back – mornings mostly, when I was interested in understanding the different ways classical music was ‘sold’ to different audience groups. I listened again yesterday and had a similar experience listening as I did when I first listened to it 25 years ago. I recognise that its not really for me. I need to form some kind of relationship with a radio station, and I’m not entirely sure we’ll ever be a lasting partnership.

But the important thing is, that’s OK. The fact it’s celebrating its 25th birthday proves it’s doing something right for its 5.8 million listeners.

So, happy birthday Classic FM. There’s room here for everyone. And, I forgive you for the shonky job interview experience I had. Still, the tour was nice, and I do rather like that rooftop garden you’ve got.

Classic FM’s 25th Birthday Concert with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is live from the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool on Thursday 7 September, 7.30pm