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.

BBC Proms 2017: On the subject of clapping

I really should have known better. It’s a conversation I shouldn’t have got embroiled in. And yet I did.

The top line is that I don’t like people clapping in between movements of works, whilst some more official individuals think its perfectly OK because it means that we’re being inclusive.

I am a forgiving chap. I’m also welcoming. I defend people. I advocate. I encourage.

And I have tried. I’ve tried not to get annoyed when people clap after the end of a movement instead of the end of the work. But I struggle.

The reason I get annoyed is because when I listen to, for example, a symphony, I’m listening to a story. The story ends when the work ends. To applaud before the end just feels counter-intuitive.

I’d say that to my best friend (who comes to me for recommendations for classical music concerts) with the same intent another friend stopped me from clapping after the third of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Thank goodness he did. People around me were engrossed in the performance.

As a listener and an advocate, I don’t demand extensive prior knowledge, just an adherence to a basic principle: wait until the full-stop before you applaud.

BBC Proms 2017/21: European Requiem / Beethoven 9 / BBC National Orchestra of Wales

I don’t know much of James MacMillan’s work. But based on a couple of listens to his European Requiem, I think he’s someone whose work I’d like to explore a little more.

But …

Let’s not extract the joy out of proceedings

Radio 3 went to great lengths to contextualise MacMillan’s work before it was performed. A sign of the times no doubt.

I get why the explanation was necessary. Post-EU referendum, we’ve entered a phase where everything has to be clarified in case someone’s misled, offended, or something is misconstrued. It’s important that the BBC maintains its commitment to impartiality. No-one wants the right-wingers thinking the BBC is pedalling an anti-Brexit agenda.

But that contextualisation is at the cost of personal discovery.

God forbid we’d be allowed to be revel in an ambiguity and arrive at a sense of what the music means to us on an individual basis. Do we have to experience a work of art precisely as the composer intended?

European Requiem

I love MacMillan’s writing for chorus. His rich harmonies create an uncompromising wall of sound that is comforting in places, and terrorising in others. Some of the solo lines for Jacques Imbrulgio had a haunting effect, the chant-like melisma conveying a desolate air in places.

MacMillan’s obvious enthusiasm for bold rhythms makes the work accessible on a first listen too, giving the percussion section in the orchestra a central role in contributing to an inclusive end product.

Beethoven 9: underwhelming

In the spirit of aspiring to be objective, it’s probably worth me being transparent. I tend to have higher expectations of a performance if the work is popular. Holst’s Planets Suite is one example, similarly Elgar’s tiresome Enigma Variations. So too Beethoven 9 – the kind of work that demands precision because it is played so very much.

BBC NOW’s playing was efficient and workman-like, but prone to slip-ups in places. I’ve heard a lot of eye-squinting intonation over the past three weeks and Beethoven 9 was in no way the worst demonstration, but there were some surprising moments.

I’m a stickler, I know. And quite rightly, a lot of people for whom this concert was targeted and attended by, wouldn’t be unduly phased. But, if the Proms is to call itself the greatest classical music festival in the world then I do think spot-on intonation at all times should be a deliverable.

There were moments when soloists and ensemble competed with different speeds in the final movement, and I would have liked the slow movement to linger a little more than it did. A lot of the time things felt rather hurried.

But, what really shone was the rich vocal ensemble in the final movement, and in particular the bass soloist. The chorus too, performing without scores, was the boldest evocation of Schiller’s Ode to Joy I’d heard in a long time.

Listen to the concert in full on the BBC Proms website

Listen to the best concerts from BBC Proms 2017

Links to some of the best concerts in this year’s Proms. This page will be updated throughout the season.

Elgar 1 | Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Barenboim

Elgar 2 | Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Barenboim

ShostakovichViolin Concerto No. 1 | Nicola Benedetti and BBC Symphony Orchestra

Shostakovich October | BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Shostakovich 10 | BBC National Orchestra of Wales

HarmoniumBBC Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven 3 ‘Eroica’ | Aurora Orchestra

Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition | BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 ‘Pathetique’ | BBC Philharmonic


BBC Proms 2017: Week 3 Recommendations

Slim pickings this coming week. Just as well I’m off to Verbier.

Saturday 29 July – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra & Stephen Hough – Brahms 1

The BBC Phil with Juanjo Mena performing Tchaikovsky 6 was an unexpected highlight last week. How will the band fare with conductor Mark Wigglesworth in the BBC Phil’s next appearance? Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 is the one I’m listening out for.

Sunday 30 July – BBC National Orchestra of Wales – Sir James MacMillan’s A European Requiem

The European premiere of MacMillan’s A European Requiem is one half of a double-bill with Beethoven 9. Ode to Joy just sounds like a break-up song now. So, MacMillan’s work makes for a potential new discovery. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday 2 August – Philharmonia Orchestra – John Adams Naive and Sentimental Music

This was one concert I definitely wanted to go to and will, if I can do so abroad, listen to on the radio. Because Adams.

Thursday 3 August – Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie – Brahms Symphony No. 2

Brahms 2. German orchestra. Jarvi, conductor. Dead cert.