BBC Proms 2018: The new broom sweeps clean

The launch day for the BBC's Proms season – 'the world's greatest classical music festival' – has in recent years turned into an event all of its own. How was it different this year, and how did it help launch the 124th season of Promenade concerts?

This year's Proms season – an important part of the classical music calendar – is the twelfth I've blogged about. My assumption was that, like the revelation I stumbled on at the UK Eurovision final in Brighton a few months back, this year would see me significantly less enthused by the prospect of a summer full of concerts.

To a certain extent that it is the case. Little in the 124th season, on a first glance, leapt out at me especially.

But, 24 hours after the unveiling of the programme, my feelings have changed a little. This post highlights some of the reasons why, including some of the subtle differences apparent in what now unequivocally constitutes Proms Director David Pickard's stamp on the music festival's identity.

The new season was unveiled in the morning – it's usually unveiled in the afternoon

Sure, that may not seem very important. But in Comms/PR terms is vital. It meant that instead of a select few journalists being given a heads up of what's in the season at a breakfast briefing and then people commenting on it in dribs and drabs speculatively, everyone had access to the season online and commented accordingly.

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Twenty-six BBC Proms 2018 highlights

That meant the 'Proms unveil' first occurred online and specifically on social media. And that resulted in some positives and negatives. In positive terms, it made the bottom-line data about the Proms events itself available more immediately. The flipside to that was the special moment which usually heralded the start of the Proms – the lifting of the press embargo in the afternoon – was lost. Put simply, the unveiling of the Proms 2018 season was made a 'digital first' announcement and with it the joy of the day was jettisoned.

And on that basis I have a hunch it was less about preserving the spirit of the event amongst the Proms' strongest advocates, and more about bringing it in line with the rest of the BBC's musical endeavours and their way of doing things. 

People pissed and moaned as soon as the Proms was unveiled

The serious flipside to this was that I was saw a lot more negativity about the BBC Proms on social media throughout the morning. Why? My view is that people are more inclined to engage and get entrenched on social media before lunchtime. Give anyone with an axe to grind (and there are plenty in the classical music world) the chance to piss and moan and they will.

One performing artist (though not appearing in this year's season) communicated significant levels of ire about the choice of adjectives used to describe works on the BBC Proms website. I have some sympathy with him. I get similarly annoyed when great works of art are reduced to meaningless hyperbole in order to grab attention and increase click-throughs.

But, Twitter being what it is, the ire which at first seemed amusing quickly had a tinge of bullying about it.

I don't think its the BBC's responsibility to police social media (obviously), but there were moments during the day when it felt as though the detractors had already pissed and moaned about the Proms season so much that the mere idea of stepping into the Albert Hall even to hear an orchestra tune was anathema.

By adopting a digital first announcement, the narrative threads stitching the season together (French repertoire, women composers, new music etc – see the BBC Media Centre for those) are lost in the melee of the conversation. Tweet sentiment reduces the Proms down to sweeping statements regarding the entire season, resulting in conversation which is ultimately meaningless and potentially damaging. In my opinion, the digital conversation unnecessarily battered the Proms around.

The BBC Proms feels ever-so-slightly repositioned

Because the detail of the event had already been revealed earlier in the day (a calculated gamble intended to use the digital audience to offset any negative press coverage of the season as a whole), the evening launch event felt a little lacklustre.

There were still subtle hints as to how the Proms is changing. The promotional material (and the launch film shown at the event last night and online during the day) didn't lead on broadcast personalities – it wasn't 'presenter-led' – but instead focussed on performers, works and groups. 

There was even more emphasis placed on young people, education and young talent. BBC Young Musicians features heavily (even though it amounts to one celebration concert) because the competition, for better or worse, is 40 years old this year. There's word about that the BBC hosting the Eurovision Young Musicians competition will also see the EBU's cheap imitation going through something of a revamp too. That emphasis on inspiring the next generation to take up music is important to the BBC – not just because it is in itself a good thing to be doing – but also because it helps position the organisation, defending its public service ethos in a fractured and highly competitive broadcast environment. 

The initial mild disappointment I experienced at the beginning of the day not being able to find anything that immediately appealed to me via the website, was offset by the end when I started to flick through the brochure (proving to me that it remains all about the brochure and that digital announcements are deathly dull affairs).

In previous years I had always regarded the programme of events as being about seeking out entire concerts to get behind. Now I'm finding I'm looking for specific elements in a concert to hook me in. That's a reflection of my developing needs as a listener. It's also a reminder that the Proms isn't now the pinnacle or end-point of the concert-going experience, but a signpost to others outside of the season. I think we need to start making that point more and more. I believe the BBC Proms has a responsibility to encourage concert-going outside of its own season. That should be its legacy as each season comes to an end.

Chilled wine and canapes goes a long way to stir the heart

Some will question whether there even needs to be a launch event. This overlooks an important point. I recognise how relatively few occasions there are when performers, writers, commentators, managers and influencers in the classical music world all come together in one room. Artistic endeavours of the kind that fuels the classical music industry are themselves the result of collaborations. Such collaborations don't happen just by sending emails or telephoning people.

I'm noticing more and more too how events like this reveal the relatively small size of the industry. I noticed that at the ABO Conference I attended in Cardiff in January this year. And whilst that in itself may not seem very important a point to highlight, I think its a narrative that needs to be made more of to concert-goers. There is a dissonance (forgive the pun) between the seeming grandeur of the interior of a concert hall and the size of the orchestra on stage, compared to the community that sustains it. Revealing the human side of the business might  make it appear less aloof to some newcomers. 

The classical music industry as family

I am at risk of appearing like I'm drunk as I type this, but yesterday's Proms launch reminded me of another insight I've arrived at over the past year: that there is a sense of unity within the classical music industry which is infectious. Those who perform it, finance it, programme it or write about it, all appear to be aligned. I've noticed that at events when industry individuals come together to witness the opening of a new building or the unveiling of a new concert series. These moments are a little like watered-down versions of Christmas Eve. They unify, invigorate and strengthen resolve.

Don't get me wrong. Amid the firm handshakes and the warm smiles, there were aloof individuals. But last night was the first time I had genuinely felt part of a community of like-minded professionals – perhaps even at home. I'm normally looking around for people to speak to. This time people were saying hello. That means a tremendous amount to me. I appreciate feeling welcome. What's odd though is that the vast majority of my income is generated from leadership coaching and video work, not from anything to do with classical music.

Now I feel a part of it, I'd like to generate some income from it

It seems odd to say that. I've written about classical music for years now. But it was only really last night that I experienced feeling like a valid and useful part of the classical music ecosystem. And maybe that's what I've needed all along to give me the confidence to seek out more professional opportunities. And that prospect is every bit as exciting as the opening of the BBC Proms when I first started blogging about it in 2005. 

Read my twenty-six highlights from this year's BBC Proms. 

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Recommended concerts at BBC Proms 2016

Here’s my hastily drawn up list of recommended list of concerts at BBC Proms 2016 (based on one cursory flick through the brochure and liable to change).



BBC Proms in Australia

The BBC are going to mount a modest BBC Proms season in Australia next year, it was announced earlier this week. 

As a hardcore Proms advocate, I’ve always wondered about the idea of a Proms season in a different UK city (something I’d love to to see). But a Prom concert series on another continent is something entirely different. Isn’t it?

Not really. BBC Prom concerts from London have featured as part of ‘Australia’s Radio 3’ ABC Classic FM for a few years now. If there’s a radio audience, might there be an audience for a local audience? And if there’s an audience to tap into in April when BBC Proms Australia gets underway next year, might we see a live link up with Australia during London’s Last Nght next year?

I’m fascinated by the proposition, something which makes me ponder one fundamental question: could BBC Proms Australia be the reason I end up visiting Australia for the first time in my life. I’m open to invitations. Do please drop me a line should you have a budget,

Staged over four days from April 13-16, 2016 at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, BBC Proms Australia will feature orchestras from three Australian cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Queensland. More details to follow. 

BBC Proms 2015: Prom 22 – Pastoral Symphony / Brett Dean / Aurora Orchestra

Brett Dean’s Pastoral Symphony – the London premiere of the work – was an expansive soundscape combining live orchestra and recorded sound effects. This immersive three dimensional work was an intriguing listen, made more thought provoking by his programme note:

Sure, we all ‘love’ nature, ut what we love more are all the trappings of modern living .. certainly more than the desire to stop and bask in the glory of a single butcherbird, perhaps the most magical sound found on the whole Australian continent.

Dean is a consistently reliable composer, delivering interesting, fun and entertaining works, and on this particular afternoon succeeded in captivating a great many children in the audience. Loud driving rhythms contrasted with moments of stark beauty in a vast expanse interspersed with sounds of nature from a far-away land.

Not for the first time Dean’s music has really entertained me. This work, unlike his Electric Prelude and Vexations and Devotions, wasn’t listened to whilst eating a hard boiled egg salad.

How the Radio 1 Ibiza Prom celebrated, validated and re-acquainted

I’ve always hated dance music. When the genre embedded itself into the national psyche back in the mid-nineties I was working at the Aldeburgh Festival in East Suffolk, eight miles from the nearest train station and thirty miles away from the nearest nightclub. The club scene passed me by. How did Radio 1’s Ibiza Prom change my view? 

Wednesday night’s Radio 1 Ibiza Prom was a glorious affair. As someone who was terrified of the onslaught of dance music in the mid-nineties, the concert (or was it a gig or some kind of gathering?) introduced me to the music all my contemporaries went mad for twenty years before. If I had had a tricky relationship with the music then, the intervening years had helped soften its brutal impact and smooth out my nerves. Last night we became friends.

I listened to every single orchestrated mix with soaring strings and fat brass chords with an unexpected sense of euphoria. And I did that at 10.15 last night, 10.00 this morning, midday and 3 this afternoon. At 4.30 this afternoon I was waving my arms in the air like a clubber.Prom 16_CR Chris Christodoulou_1There is, I now realise, an easy explanation for this, one which would have been shielded from us middle class Middle Englanders who had been led to believe that dance music was the soundtrack to drug-induced fatalities. Clubs, raves and those esoteric private parties I heard other people being invited to were either weird, slightly disconnected from reality or dangerous. They were hosted in alienating venues where the only thing you’d want from the bar was a bottle of water. Pumped men stripped to the waist with their t-shirts neatly hanging from their back pockets made clubs altogether intimidating places. This was the dance scene I saw. I sought embarrassed solace in the sticky-floored nightclubs of downtown Ipswich where the playlist was resolutely Abba hits.

My perception of, and reaction to, dance music wasn’t based in any kind of reality. Rather it was based on a media narrative pedalled by scaremongers in the mid 90s. Some of us swallowed it.

I’ve long thought club scene and dance music wasn’t for me. Listening to last night’s Prom I heard something entirely different. Reliable beats, pedal notes and endless seventh notes for a start created just enough tension to make resolution not just a possibility but a euphoria-filled guarantee. Not only that, I was surprised that I recognised quite so many ‘choons’.  Was this dance music-lite or have I responded more favourably to dance music than I’ve previously given myself credit for?Prom 16_CR Chris Christodoulou_4There was a joyousness in the Royal Albert Hall rooted in the music and reflected by the adoring crowd. It is always an incredible moment when the hall’s USP becomes obvious – the collective spirit of an enthralled audience evident in an appreciative roar or cheer. The event brought a different kind of smile to my face and quite unexpectedly, I felt a part of what was going on even though I hadn’t attended in person.

For me, what makes all the more remarkable is that it felt to me as though I was experiencing its joy for the first time in the same way friends and acquaintances who had attended had experienced it the first time they heard it years ago.Prom 16_CR Chris Christodoulou_3I have a proven track record of being late to the party, so I’m not unduly surprised it took me twenty years to finally arrive at this one. What pleases me the most is knowing that another group of people have experienced the unique experience of a Prom. Whilst some define the season by the genre it has come to be most recognised by, I’m seeing it more and more as a combination of audience, venue and season.

Like any other music festival in the world, there are moments when the comparatively straight-laced elements let their hair down, kick back and have some fun. Those moments in other festivals have always felt incredibly inclusive to me, injecting variety into proceedings and introducing a relaxed vibe for an evening. The same happened last night at the Ibiza Prom.

A very special night.

Watch the BBC Radio 1 Ibiza Prom on iPlayer or listen to it via the Radio 1 website.