Coping post #bbcproms

Clearly, I have nothing to complain about really. In comparison to a great many Prommers, I didnt attend anywhere near the same number of concerts as some of them did. But I have been listening a lot on the radio and the concert season has been uppermost in my mind since it’s launch … In April, wasn’t it?

The balloons have been the deflated, the bunting swept up. Friends have hugged, said goodbye and promised to see each other before the beginning of next one. All know that will be a promise all too difficult to keep.

The season is over. Life continues apace, at an altogether different pace. The rhythm of the day will change drastically. Home will shift from Prince Consort Road back to the place we spend the remainder of the year.

It will take time to reintegrate ourselves into society. In some cases it may even take time to slip back into seeing quite so much of our partners, husbands or wives. For some there’ll be a gaping void to fill.

That’s what it’s like when the Proms is over.

No need to be sad though. New challenges. New opportunities. New things to see and listen to. A whole wealth of other arts and culture to get our collective gnashers into.

So. Put the kettle on and make yourself a cup of tea. Treat yourself to a cheese and bacon turnover. Rest awhile on the sofa. Have a doze. The time until the beginning of the next Proms season will seem a whole let less daunting a prospect after that. Promise.

BBC Proms 2011: In Figures

Not official statistics for BBC related stuff. You can find that stuff on the BBC Press Office website. Instead, here’s a collection of pretty looking pie charts and bar graphs showing video, audio and text statistics relating to my activities over this year’s BBC Proms’ season.

Blogs Posts

The editorial changed for blog posts this year. This year’s posts saw a focus on reporting on announcements pre-concert, storytelling inspired by the BBC Proms and promoting the live blogs. The effort put into developing the live blog ‘style’ inevitably forced a greater emphasis on the likes of Twitter and (more effectively) AudioBoo to express personal reactions on concerts.

So, my usual slightly left-field (some have described it as occasionally ‘broadside’ would you believe) style of Proms-related blog post haven’t been as prominent this year.

What’s interesting for me (looking at the graph below) is that the blog posts covering the Proms in the Park, and this year’s John Wilson Orchestra gig have far outstripped the rest of the content. And above that, last year’s Rodger’s and Hammerstein Prom blog outstripped everything by far.

What links these posts is that they touch on Proms events of mass appeal: TV events offering popular, accessible music in short segments. It also underlines the ongoing popular appeal of the John Wilson Orchestra and specifically John Wilson himself.

I’m surprised by the performance of the Comedy Prom post, the How to Prom post and the Young Person’s Guide post (especially as this was a recent post of only last week) though wonder what this suggests is that what people want from a blog is a piece of rich content – a clip perhaps – or a handy list of things which answer an often asked question.

Personally however, I’d strive to getting a similar take up on blog posts inspired by classical music as that seen in the John Wilson blog posts.

The chart below shows all of the blog posts published about the BBC Proms 2011 on, and the performance of those posts in the 90 days to September 11 2011.


Live Blogs

The live blogs have performed well during the Proms season but the editorial proposition of these live blogs has taken time to develop.

The overriding learning point from this experiment has been the fundamental point live blogs: you need to have something to report.

By far the most interesting element to report has – over time – grown to be the rehearsals. Editorially, these provide points to be reported on (rehearsal events, for example) and inspiration for personal recollections.

For the most part, I’ve been relieved not to have used any exclamation marks in the live blogs. It’s tempting to publish quite banal lines outlining ‘how exciting’ everything is. But over time, this does become boring to write. The real challenge has undoubtedly been ensuring a narrative thread throughout a live blog covering something like a concert. It probably needs more refinement, but that aside the process is tiring.

Does it return much? It’s difficult to tell. Statistically, live blogs for the First Night and Last Night have performed the best. I’ve been surprised by the number of replays the First Night had, for example. The other live blogs of the season did reasonably well, but weren’t spectacular in terms of reader numbers.

Percentage wise however, none of the Proms live blogs performed anywhere near as well as my Eurovision live blogs as the pie chart below illustrates.

My original concern running a live blog was that it risked not having an audience because most were on Twitter.

My experience at the end of the season is that this wasn’t the case after all. Monitoring the #bbcproms hashtag saw the same contributors participating in conversation/reporting/enthusing, suggesting to me that there weren’t as many people participating in the hashtag anywya (if there aren’t many participating, are there that many following it?)

The fact that the Last Night live blog performed reasonably well compared to the First Night suggests that live blog readers weren’t discouraged after the First Night experience (although fewer readers for the Last Night blog might be down to their being considerably less Twitter love).

Undoubtedly, it was most beneficial when there was a pannellist participating in the live blog. The concert provided a great opportunity to have a blogger in the hall and one listening/watching at home. I’m genuinely disappointed by the 3% share for the BrahmsHaitink gig Ewan Spence participated in as I think editorially this was one of the most interesting and revealing events of the season for me.


I have a rather odd approach to AudioBoos. Where some journalists will use them for reporting/interviewing (and I do this sometimes), I prefer using them as conversational pieces either with me or with friends and associates. The content I produce with it largely reflects my personal reaction to the AudioBoo product, which in turn amplifies the persona I like to project via it. The resulting content is therefore a risky proposition to ‘sell’ on the internet with users. I suspect it’s a ‘Marmite thing’.

Having said that, I’m impressed with the AudioBoo results for the BBC Proms this year.

The biggest hitter was the post-BrahmsHaitink gig (live blogged with Ewan Spence – reporting on the experience of live blogging), next the Grainger clip from the Northern Sinfonia Prom (an advocacy piece) and interview with Proms Director Roger Wright’s Assistant, Yvette (‘The Person Who Runs The Proms’). Admittedly, the stats for the latter may be skewed by it being an older piece of content. However, the fact that the ‘Coda’ piece recorded at the Last Night of the Proms performed has performed half as well as the Yvette boo in only 24 hours pleases me.


YouTube Videos

There was a deliberate change in emphasis this year where video production was concerned. Rather than ‘built’ pieces, I experimented in another way recording monologues in one take with varying backgrounds. A deliberate move was made employing the services of inexperienced colleagues in order to feed into the spontaneity of the finished product (where a camera operator was required). Like AudioBoos however there was an ongoing commitment to impulsive reactions to the concert series as it went on (eg. Saucy Beethoven 9).

Statistically, Inside The Royal Albert Hall (filmed on the First Night) was the biggest hitter. This isn’t because it’s had the most time to garner hits – the video was already hitting a comparatively high number of total hits only a few weeks after ti was published. Inside the OB Truck had to be pulled soon after publishing for editorial reasons.

The only edited piece produced before the Proms season began – Classical Music isn’t Difficult – as an introductory piece performed well overall but didn’t do as well I would have hoped, suggesting perhaps that people are interested in visuals not script (Inside the Royal Albert Hall).


Personally speaking, there’s still a need to find an effective voice to talk about classical music in such a way that it’s accessible but still informative. Conversations around classical music need to develop more. There have been a number of new connections I’ve made via Twitter which will – I hope – go on to become lasting friendships based on a shared understanding and appreciation of the genre, but it’s by no mean the norm. And editorially speaking I think the fundamental weakness in the social media chain is the likes of Facebook and Twitter. These platforms are far too brief and ‘soundbitey’ to make for meaningful conversations, discussions and debate around the arts. An opportunity for the future, no doubt.

BBC Proms 2011: Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra – New Commentary

News just in from the BBC Proms press office is that there’s something rather new making an appearance in amongst a tried and tested and hugely popular orchestral work at the Last Night of the Proms this year.

I am genuinely excited about it.

The BBC has commissioned writer Wendy Cope to write a new commentary to accompany the Benjamin Britten Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra. It will be premiered on Saturday 10 September 2011. And – not only that – the commentary will be read by Jenny Agutter.

You may not be aware that Young Persons’ Guide does have a commentary. I only know this because I have the score upstairs in my office and because I remember hearing the original commentary on a scratchy recording played to me by my music teacher thirty years ago. As I recall, that commentary was read by former Proms presenter of old Kenneth Kendall.

The idea behind that original commentary was that it provided annotations for the young audience. Sometimes the commentary introduced solo lines or ensemble sections in the 20 minute piece. At other points the commentary was spoken over the orchestral accompaniment. As I recall – possibly because of Kendall’s frightfully BBC voice – it was all very ‘proper’.

Most of the recordings I have – indeed, most of the performances I’ve heard in recent years – have been commentary-less. The thinking being that the form of the music itself does much to describe the orchestra anyway, making the commentary redundant. I think too that the original commentary may appear rather outdated – perhaps a little stale ? – for present day audiences.

So it’s with all of that in mind that Wendy Cope’s new commentary promises to make this familiar work – part of the standard repertoire for bands now – an interesting proposition on the night.

Another reason why I’m looking forward to live blogging the general rehearsal on Saturday morning.

BBC Proms 2011: Take me to the World Mashup

I’ve been hastily reviewing some of my Proms ‘output’ from the past few years before the 2011 Last Night. A way of drawing things to a close and packing things away.

The Sondheim Mashup Video is a must for this short series. This was something which came about as a result of a commission from Radio 3 Interactive in January 2011. I had some meetings with a handful of people, first to road-test my ideas and then to locate suitable resources. There was a budget – travel and accommodation – but in BBC terms, it was a small one.

I’d been cogitating the idea since the end of the previous season. I’d know then that there was going to be a Sondheim celebration concert in the 2010 Proms season. This made me think of my most favourite Sondheim song – Take me to the World.

Taking the elements which made the BBC Staff Piano Duet a success – spotanaity, relaxed style and rough and ready as well as showing people in situations they wouldn’t normally be in – I wanted to see whether it was possible to partially recreate the sequence sometimes seen in the Last Night of the Proms when the fanfares are thrown around the country as TV viewers see live link-ups from the different nations and regions. We’d done admin, presentation and production staff the year before, so why not do orchestral musicians this year? And why not get them to sing? After all, musicians must surely be able to sing. And they must surely be terribly outgoing and comfortable to sing on camera.

There was a ‘political’ element to this. The BBC was moving ahead full-steam towards its Salford move. Staff were – whether it was deliberate or accidental – thinking more and more about the organisation they worked for in terms of what went on outside of London. For me, there was a palpable sense of guilt wrapped up with being a London staffer. So, producing something which attempted to show BBC musicians outside of London – and especially away from the Royal Albert Hall – was important.

As it was, this was not an easy gig to set up. One band failed to register enthusiasm for the project. Some were extremely reluctant to field any contributors. There was an understandable element of fear associated in the pitch – largely for those who were charged with recruitment. As a producer this is a difficult process. One wants to talk to the ‘talent’ (the players) directly. But in BBC-land those players are staff and they represent a mini-brand themselves. It is therefore vital that other people concerned with brand representation are involved in the discussions. As a producer however, that demands relinquishing control over the creative process. And sometimes that’s a different circle to square.

The soundtrack was a must. Taking the track I had on my iPod I gave it to arranger Pete Faint and charged him with the task of coming up with an instrumental version. I then used that track and played it out on my iPod dock in the various locations we filmed.

Filming took place on a selection of days in late spring. The BBC Concert Orchestra filming – choosing a field might have made for a pretty location but it was a bugger to film – was first, then the BBC Philharmonic. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Ulster Orchestra sequences were filmed respectively in an hour on two consecutive days.

By the time travel and setting up was factored in to both days’ schedule, there was barely time left to have a cup of coffee. That’s how tight everything was. The BBC Symphony Orchestra sequence was also done in a lunchbreak but this at Maida Vale – the band’s home. Each location saw a short ‘trailer’ being filmed, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ being a particular favourite of mine.

Editing was a mammoth task. An hour long session (for each location there were two cameras in operation although you don’t see all the angles in the final edit) for each location which needed transferring from tape to Mac, suitable sequences marked up and then dropped into the time line. The same principle was applied to this piece as with the piano duet. The audio you hear in this is as they sang it – not a pre-recorded mixdown. Coming up with the rough edit took two weeks – I had a full-time job going on at the same time, it has to be said. After that stage, it was just a matter of dropping in the cut-aways – players ‘cracking up’, things not going well, funny looks etc – and the entire thing was done a few days later, published just in the nick of time before the Stephen Sondheim Prom.

This video is the most popular piece I’ve produced online over the past five years. And it’s still something which makes me feel proud, not to mention warm and fluffy every time I watch it. Watching over the video below however I’m reminded about how this project very nearly didn’t happen. Shortly after commission and after production had got underway there was a period of two or three days when it seemed likely that the budget I’d thought was there to fund the project risked ‘disappearing’. Everything was secured – the total spend for the project turned out to be just shy of £1000 – but this element to the production story explains why I felt the need to detail project spend and insodoing reveal the fact that I never go anywhere without a selection of soft toys in my suitcase.

University of Lancaster Music Society: Last Night of the Proms 1994

ULMS 94: Proms 94

Stand by for a little glimpse into my life from nearly twenty years ago. A different kind of Last Night of the Proms. A concert spectacularly misnamed by a group of Lancaster University students around fifteen years before that. How can you stage a ‘Last Night of the Proms’ when there hasn’t been a series of concerts beforehand?

ULMS Proms 94

None of us organising the 1994 Proms concert at Lancaster University thought to question that basic problem. We were concentrating on something entirely different.

We were giddy with the power of being either members of the organising committee – ULMS, the University of Lancaster Music Society – or conductors of the various ensembles. Friend Patrick – who now plays principal trumpet in the Ulster Orchestra – conducted the University of Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, a band once led by BBC Singers soprano Olivia Robinson. Other pal Peter Faint – who produced the soundtrack for the BBC Proms Sondheim Mashup last year – directed the newly set up Lancaster University Swing Band.

ULMS Proms 94

A near two hour concert was planned – just like any other year – for all members of the music making University music group to participate in. There were posters designed. Strawberries and cream on offer in the interval. Balloons blown up and suspended above the audience by use of a massive net. When the signal was given in the final run of ‘Traditional Proms Music’ the ties would be loosened allowing the balloons to fall to the floor. All very TV.

My focus wasn’t on the balloons. I was far more stressed about the prospect of what felt like my biggest challenge ever. I’d committed the University Wind Band to playing ‘a complete work of three movements’ – Nigel Hess’ East Coast Pictures. It was bound to be a big hit I thought. Previous Wind Band conductor from the year before Neil Aston had introduced Hess’ work to the band.

ULMS Proms 94

One year later – like the aspiring producer I longed to be – I worked on the basis that if the band (and the audiences) liked Hess’ music then we should do more of it. East Coast Pictures was the result of that. And – to my mind – it’s also the most difficult to play. A series of four weekly two hour rehearsals might sound like sufficient time to get it together, but University makes all sorts of demands, alcohol and finals being the two most potent. This was going to be a big event. Had I bitten off more than I could chew?

But come the day of the concert, this wasn’t actually the challenge which greeted me as I stepped on to the stage, baton in hand. Where exactly was the principal trombone? He said he’d play. He promised he’d play. I knew it wasn’t difficult for him to play it. I knew just how good he was from the time we both played in Suffolk Youth Orchestra. Where was he?

The same questions rung around my head shortly before the concert began. I reassured myself. Loosen up a bit Jon. He’ll arrive. He’s just being a brass player. He’ll steam in shortly and extend his apologies.

An hour later, Richard was still a no-show. The stage was being set for the Wind Band. We needed the principal trombone. With only one to a part, not having the principal trombone would be a pain in the arse. And anyway, this was my last stab at music making at University before I graduated. I wanted to go out with a bang. Even when I’d coerced the conductor of the Proms segment later in the concert to stand-in and play principal trombone, the question still remained. Where was Richard? And – literally minutes before we processed on stage – where exactly was I going to find a replacement copy of the music Richard still had in his case?

“Take this,” I said to replacement trombonist Noel, handing him the massive conductor’s score as he walked past me backstage, “read your part from the score.”

I wasn’t entirely sure how I would get through the ‘spot’. I knew the music inside out, for sure. But conducting it from memory unexpectedly? Could I do that? Would the band keep it together? Would I finish the piece and discover that just as I feared, conductors aren’t really necessary? Would Richard turn up at the end of the concert ready to play?

As it happened, Richard didn’t turn up. And I never got the music back. The complete set of parts – purchased by the University from Faber Music that year – is missing a principal trombone part. It’s not a sorry tale. Far from it. The performance was – as I recall at least – absolutely fantastic. The very fitting conclusion to my University days I’d hoped for. A burnt-in memory. A moment in time securing vital shared musical experiences. All of this with a brilliant, high octane soundtrack as you hear in the third movement of Pictures – New York (above).

I don’t remember us trying to make the Last Night of the (Lancaster) Proms like the Royal Albert Hall Proms at all. Both years I was involved – the year before as a member of the organising committee – it was the sense that this event was ‘our event’. Those of us who had quickly realised that we weren’t going to be professional musicians saw organising the likes of a concert as preparing for a future life in arts administration. And that this was our practice run. And of all the concerts we organised during the year, the Last Night was the biggest practice of all. The pinnacle. The CV fodder.

But more than that, there was the promise of the ULMS ‘Punch’ directly after the concert. The pay off. One member of the committee had been charged with making a trip to the ‘Cash ‘n’ Carry’ to get as much cheap booze as could be fitted in the vehicle used to transport it back. The distinctly unpleasant (and probably dangerous) concoction was usually mixed with a hefty serving of orange juice and lemonade. A few swigs and the Last Night celebrations were complete – or at least couldn’t be recalled from that moment on, the morning after.


The picture above features members of the ULMS Committee from the 1993 Last Night of the Proms at the University of Lancaster, post concert raising plastic cups full of ‘that punch’.

The videos embedded in this post are of all three movements from Nigel Hess’ East Coast Pictures played in concert at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, conducted by James Maddocks (born incidentally, only four years before I conducted Pictures at Lancaster in 1994.)