New York Times: The importance of the BBC Proms ‘as austerity looms’

Nice to see the BBC Proms written about in the New York Times. A reminder of the classical music festival’s global reach. Always good when people outside the UK remind the rest of us what’s important. Timely.

The following section especially stands out:

“Despite these successful premieres, and another strong Proms season, some might see a lack of resolution for the BBC’s musical activities. The government’s consultation paper on the corporation barely mentions them. But that might be a promising omission. After all, the controller of Radio 3, Alan Davey, recently told The Guardian that he is under “no pressure to get rid of one” of his orchestras.

The consultation paper also suggests that the Proms is as vital and unifying a national event as a royal wedding, reserved for the national broadcaster. It also acknowledges that “in-depth classical music and arts programming” would “either not be provided or underprovided by the wider market.

New BBC Proms Director, David Pickard

Two classical music things resonated for me today.

The first, was the LSO’s Gareth Davies blog post ruminating about how Abbey Road Studios drips with heritage and why classical music execs constantly obsessing about reinventing the genre. Potent stuff. A point I happen to agree with.

The other thing was the announcement that David Pickard, he from OAE and Glyndebourne has taken on the BBC Proms crown. Norman Lebrecht described it as a “left-field appointment“. Charlotte Higgins warned that, “he will need all his patience, diplomatic skills and fighting spirit to survive – and enjoy – his new role.”

The Independent’s Jessica Duchen wrote, “Pickard needs to embrace the scale of vision for the Proms that Wright established. This means not only continuing the mission of bringing world-class classical music to the widest possible audiences. It also means doing so with a flair that can make events an experience to remember for a lifetime.”

“His conservatism may indicate that the BBC top brass would like to see a change of tack at the Proms, which has become increasingly gimmicky in recent seasons,” said Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph . “He is certainly a safe pair of hands: the question is whether he has any surprises up his sleeve.”

Pickard was one of a long list of people whose arts administration credentials helped sell the field as a potential job market to me and my contemporaries in 1994. Many of us the year I graduated looked to arts administration as a way of keeping the classical music dream afloat. One of our year ended up working for David Pickard at the OAE. She didn’t stick it out (not because of him or the band, more to do with not enjoying working and living in London). Pickard was one of the poster boys. And looking back on what the man has achieved and when (he took on Glyndebourne when he was the age I am now), I end up feeling confident, perhaps even invigorated, about the future.

What Pickard thinks of Gareth’s take on heritage and reinvention I’m not entirely sure. But, when I bump into the new Director in the BH lifts, I’ll be sure to ask. Somehow.

BBC Proms 2015 Season Launch: Edward Blakeman, Highlights & Video

I attended the BBC Proms season launch this week. Over the past few years, the season launch has become as important a part of the calendar for me, almost as potent the first night itself. I always get excited when the invitation to the launch is sent in the post. I was surprisingly restless on Thursday, wanting proceedings to get underway.

The afternoon press briefing – this year on the fifth floor of the Royal College of Music looking out across to the Royal Albert Hall – was full. Journalists and bloggers scribbled down notes as Director Edward Blakeman spoke. Edward spoke gently but passionately about the season. It was the first time I’d heard the previously behind-the-scenes administrator speak about the programmes he clearly lovingly creates. He’s not the only one involved in the process, I’m sure, but there were moments in the press briefing when I felt we had a light shone on the heart of the Proms.

Edward Blakeman, Director BBC Proms 2015
Edward Blakeman, Director BBC Proms 2015

Amongst the ‘classical’ stuff there’s Prokofiev, Beethoven, Elgar’s Gerontius, and Nielsen which will consume my attention. I’m also pleased to see the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment doing Brahms 1 (my favourite symphony) and the Aurora Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Pastoral. Mitsuko Uchido‘s Prom including Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s eighth symphony with the LPO is also something I’d like to get to. The late night Prom with cellist Yo Yo Ma is undoubtedly a must-see and will, I’m sure, be a sell-out soon after tickets go on sale. I can’t wait to see the San Francisco Symphony again – I last saw them in their home town in 2011. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Bruckner 7 performance is also on my list.

Key messages from the season launch included the Sunday matinees and the radio network tie-ins. Surprising at it might seem, I’m pleased to see the return of the 6 Music Prom and the Radio 1 Prom with the Heritage Orchestra. I’m also interested in hearing the Jarvis Cocker partnership with the BBC Philharmonic in a prom scheduled for the last week – a gig no doubt built on the success of last year’s BBC Philharmonic Presents series up in Salford.

I’ll come back to the Proms towards the end of May after the madness of the Eurovision has passed. In the meantime, I felt I could let this special time of year pass without documenting something in video form. I haven’t made a video for ages. Making one about the Proms seems like a distant memory. Special as this time of year is (and encouraged by a follower on Twitter) I’ve made a video today. Technology has changed things considerably over the three or so years since I made the last one. This one is shot and edited entirely on an iPad.

BBC Proms 2012: Elgar \ Delius \ Turnage \ BBC Symphony Orchestra

I’m battling with this picture. Cute as seeing conductors Brabbins, Gardner, Elder and Norrington posing for their First Night ‘relay concert’, the picture doesn’t stir me particularly. Should it?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not down on jolliness. Far from it. Everyone seems to be having a good time in the picture. That’s terribly important and lovely. Hurrah.

For me, the four different conductors in this concert seemed like an irrelevance. It was the composers in the concert who were more interesting.

Delius, Elgar, Tippet and Turnage. All of them monuments to ‘Englishness’ (whatever it is that actually means).

Our perception is that Elgar is the epitome of Englishness. Many of his rousing tunes make his music and him instantly recognisable too. Elgar is England. He represents ‘us’ (well, those of us who live in England). He is Englishness. And yet I wonder whether the very accessibility and popularity of his mainstream works skews our objectivity. Is his music really that ‘English’? And does it still represent England now?

Hearing Elgar’s at times nauseatingly sentimental Cockaigne Overture and his achingly establishment Coronation Ode, during the first night concert, I couldn’t feeling a little short-changed. Elgar feels irrelevant to me now.

I shouldn’t feel this way. Cockaigne was a key work for me as an orchestral player. One of collection of pieces I played when I first joined country youth orchestra. I should think more of it. But hearing it now in this most important of years for London, I’m struck more by the tiresome repetition of largely irrelevant musical depictions. Elgar doesn’t strike me as a man who was comfortable with melodic invention. Repetition was the way forward for him. Give ’em more of what they can easily digest. A big finish after that and they’ll cheer like mad things. Was Elgar composing by numbers? Was he a lower-grade Rachmaninov stuck in the regions, composing about a capital’s prowess slowly petering out?

If all four composers in the first night of the BBC Proms were alive today and looking for some feedback from me (as if!) it would be this, in this order:

  1. Elgar, your sound seems anachronistic today.
  2. Mr Tippet – your birthday music for Prince Charles initially disappointingly pays homage to Mr Elgar, but later movements do something entirely different. Well done sir. Nice work.
  3. Turnage, you turn in a consistently impressive and exhilarating wall of sound.
  4. But it’s you Mr Delius – you from German stock, born in Yorkshire and temporarily based in Florida and various European locations – who miraculously paint an elegant and sometimes stark image. A glorious concoction of simple melody underpinned by haromonic development. Your work still sings nearly one-hundred years on.

The first night of the BBC Proms didn’t seek to represent English music in its entirety. It couldn’t. But it did pick out three key players over the past 100 or so years. And it prompted questions about identity as a result. I just find myself increasingly dissatisfied with Elgar. Is that a bad thing?

No. It’s not. I rather like the idea of deliberately putting one well-loved composer from the past through the mill a bit. It is as though Elgar’s music should be road-tested just a little more rigorously.

Is his output robust enough for repeat listens in the same way that a symphony by Beethoven or Mahler is? Or is it that Elgar is only at his most satisfying in larger scale works that afford him the space and time for greater development?

I have my doubts on Edward’s output and that’s one very good reason to start listening to more of his works to find out the answer.

BBC Proms 2012: Launch Day

Me and The Chap never have arguments. Never. We only ever have ‘heated discussions’. If I start gesticulating wildly, then the label is change to ‘animated’. But it never goes any higher than that.

Last night, a minor disagreement over the washing escalated quickly into a heated discussion, momentarily brushing the ‘animated’ bracket.

I wanted to do a mid-week wash. This was a surprising development. I hardly ever put the washing on. The Chap (who is at home more than I am) has a schedule where domestic chores are concerned. Thus, me proposing putting on a mid-week bundle of washing on played havoc with a schedule which is by now second-nature for him.

Preparing for a big #bbcproms day ahead

Not only that, I was putting a wash on at 10.30pm. The cycle took 2 hours. What was I thinking? The clothes would remain damp in the washing machine until the morning. That surely wouldn’t be good.

The discussion went on for possibly ten minutes as we tossed various points around about theere being no need to do the washing, how it could wait until the weekend, how the shirts would be absolutely fine until the morning and how it wasn’t necessary for either of us to sit staring at the washing machine as it went through its cycle.

The real reason for wanting to do a mid-week wash didn’t as it happens come to me until earlier this morning when, bleary eyed, I retrieved my clean shirt from the washing machine and stared in horror for a while wondering why the previously white checks were now dark blue.

Why was it important to have a smart shirt on today? I really wasn’t sure. And, more importantly, had a colour wash seeped into my maroon and white check ‘interview’ shirt? Or would a swift iron dry out the fabric and restore the colours to what my memory thought they should be.

It was only when I was mid-iron, sighing with relief that the white checks had returned that I realised why it was important to be smart today.

Today is a special day. To not dress smartly would be weirdly disrespectful. It is the launch day for the BBC Proms. Members of the press convene to hear about the forthcoming season from Captain Proms himself, Roger Wright.

It's pink and it's gorgeous and smells like a dream.

Years of planning, months of organising, days of proof-reading and hours upon hours of talking into microphones result in today. Ahead of the season and necessarily before the day tickets go on sale, the BBC Proms has another lesser-known milestone. The equivalent of a dignitary smashing a bottle of champagne against the hull of a newly constructed ship. Today is a special day in the calendar.

Of course, even blogging about this does pose a bit of a thorny problem. At the end of last year’s season I said I would be taking a year off from it. At the beginning of this year I even went so far as to say that one of my hopes was to get to the end of 2012 having not tweeted about the #bbcproms. I’m going back on both points.

I am doing the unthinkable (or maybe it wasn’t unthinkable). I’m doing a U-turn.

There is a simple reason for this. A justification, if you like. In my day to day work at the BBC I do still come into contact with a lots of Promsy-related people. It’s not that I flirt with them, you understand. I don’t go seeking them out. I absolutely haven’t and wouldn’t. It just that what I’ve noticed over the past six months is that (don’t tell the more senior ones this) it’s very difficult to avoid them. I come into contact with them a lot. And all of them are very smiley, with fantastic hair and equally fantastic teeth.

And what I definitely overlooked about the Proms (something that maybe only becomes obvious when you start consciously trying to keep your distance) is how infectiously enthusiastic anyone who works on the season is and how difficult it is not to get swept along by that enthusiasm.

I’m a cynic, I subscribe to most conspiracy theories (although I do think man did land on the moon) and I’m often paranoid. Consequently I reckon I can spot insincerity from a mile off. I am a trusted guide, you see. I will always be honest. You can trust me.

That’s why I can confidently say that when faced with that enthusiasm for a season launch – the same kind of enthusiasm I tried to capture and share about the Proms a few years back in video – it’s almost impossible not to perform a U-turn. And it’s definitely impossible to ignore it. So I won’t. I’d be an idiot not to.

And it’s because of that I wanted to do the unthinkable and wash my work clothes mid-week. It’s an even rarer thing I’ll iron a shirt in the morning (such tasks are normally only done in the morning if I’m attending a job interview).That’s the kind of effort I’ll go to on launch day.

So. Bring on The BBC Proms.

More blogs to follow.