I fear for this year’s Proms

Peter Phillips sees weaknesses in the programming that suggests the pace of evolution is too slow

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

As Sepp Blatter has so affectingly remarked, the organisation he formerly headed needs evolution, not revolution. There is a consensus that this is also what David Pickard will bring to the Proms, when he takes over after this season. Of course, Pickard’s job is going to be more complex than Blatter’s ever was. The challenge for Pickard is that however hard he tries to please most of the people most of the time, the modalities of running the Proms mean that he cannot be friends with everyone — and for him there will be no short cuts.

What do we expect from the Proms these days? Despite all the flurry in the press pack, the underlying formula has actually become quite fixed in recent years. It remains an overwhelmingly classical music series, with a balance struck between completely unknown modern music (part of the BBC’s commitment to living composers); very big projects, such as the Ring cycle; a judicious sprinkling of well-loved favourites; a dart at one or two whacky out-of-the-box events, like the Radio 1 rapper prom this year; serious neglect of music written before 1700; and an ever-increasing involvement with modern technology, which this year extends to a Proms app.

Pickard is about to become the most advised concert planner in the world. At the heart of the debate that awaits him is just how populist his concerts should be. Labour politicians have been quick to say that the Proms are too elitist for the cost; others point out that the cost is not borne by the public purse but by the licence fee — and that, however much it costs, it is not only popular but also a source of national pride. There is no doubt that Pickard will inherit a healthy scene, so why does he need to change anything? We are told that the 2014 Proms reached 16 million people in the UK alone through television, and 300,000 people attended in person. Disgruntled politicians might take note that a bit of genuine class appeals to the electorate.

I don’t think anyone wants revolution at the Proms, but the pace of evolution is a concern. The Proms formula has to be seen to develop, since some very visible parts of it — such as the Last Night, and the inevitable repetition of some core repertoire and performers — remain defiantly the same. The less savoury aspects of the Last Night will be forgiven if the rest of the festival is evidently not stuck in the mud, an impression that will be pieced together from many small details. Jazz proms are not reliably the answer, nor are family orchestras, nor are more pre-concert slots featuring lectures about your brain, nor are poetry proms, nor are proms featuring children’s creative responses. But a subtle mixture of these things, alongside the normal fare, evolving year on year, is the key to the current success of the series. One begins to appreciate how skilfully the previous director Roger Wright picked his way through this thicket.

But although the garden looks rosy, I fear for this year. Or rather, if what I perceive to be weaknesses in the planning were to run on in the future, I think the series would begin to stumble. Some of the gestures have become a little too obvious. All of Beethoven’s piano concertos? Six of Mozart’s late piano concertos? All five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos in one evening? (‘For the first time ever at the Proms’, chirps the brochure — well, yes.) Nielsen and Sibelius at 150? I suppose so; but what about Arvo Pärt at 80, claimed to be the most performed living composer, whose birthday falls on the penultimate night? Now we have a Bernstein prom, a Sinatra prom and a Late Night with Radio 1Xtra, presenting hip hop to grime, but there is so little music from before Mozart that you would be forgiven for wondering whether it is still part of respectable music-making, in a field where the British are incontestably world leaders.

We can all have a go at trying to put together our ideal Proms mix, sitting at home, without any of the pressures of having to accommodate who is available and what they are touring, let alone dealing with the politics. This is David Pickard’s new job. He comes with an excellent record from running Glyndebourne, where he has shown a knack for broadening the appeal of the music he represents. Glyndebourne will not have prepared him, however, for the balancing act I am describing. Evolution is needed, and it needs, in some measure, to be surprising.

I would like to apologise for an error I made in an article published on 28 February. I said that Ted Hughes had left money in his will for a memorial service, which included a performance of Tallis’s Spem in alium. In fact, Hughes never imagined there would be a memorial service for him and so could have made no provision for it. The service was planned by his widow, Carol.

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  • IainRMuir

    “It remains an overwhelmingly classical music series”

    I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with that. In any case, it seems absurd that so many of the non classical items belong to genres which already receive plenty of exposure elsewhere. Hip hop is not exactly obscure.

    Better case for jazz and folk, perhaps.

  • Ken

    Wallace and Gromit? Sherlock Holmes? Rap? A classic case of dumbing down (c.f. Radio 3)? Personally I’m glad when it all ends with the gruesome bathos of the Last Night. Too much heavy symphonic music and often a much touted new commission which the audience has to sit through and half heartedly applaud as they wait for their Beethoven etc. As for attending the Proms, who wants to waste warm summer evenings in the sweaty confines of the Albert Hall, jostling with the crowds for a vastly overpriced glass of plonk in the interval? Personally I’d rather save my money for some genuinely enjoyable evenings at the Wigmore Hall.

    • grammarschoolman

      ‘As for attending the Proms, who wants to waste warm summer evenings in the sweaty confines of the Albert Hall, jostling with the crowds for a vastly overpriced glass of plonk in the interval?’

      A lot of genuine music-lovers.

      ‘Personally I’d rather save my money for some genuinely enjoyable evenings at the Wigmore Hall.’

      Which is where we go the rest of the year, It’s shut for the whole of August.

  • Mark Sealey

    Why not go the whole hog and abolish any performances at all of this dreary old classical music on the grounds that it’s beamed and blared to us from all quarters – on TV all the time, multiple radio channels devoted to opera and the madrigal; in shops, lifts, waiting rooms and now even car parks.

    This is not the case with pop. So few outlets exist for the intricacies, sophistication and profundity of ‘rap’ that I for one would welcome the entire Proms season being given over to it.

    After all there are so many series of classical concerts. And scarcely any exposure to hip hop. Let’s get some balance – please!

    • grammarschoolman

      ‘ the intricacies, sophistication and profundity of ‘rap’

      Love the irony – hilarious!

    • vieuxceps2

      Ah,how i adore going for a quiet pint accompanied by the screech and yowl, the bump and thump of sophisticated and profound pop and rap.Bliss!

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  • MikeF

    What ‘less savoury’ aspects of the Last Night? There are none. I presume you refer to the last 20 minutes or so of the second half, which are simply a successful if slightly kitsch but also entirely inclusive reinvention of traditional British patriotism that has never been anything other than a means of ending the season in a party-like fashion. No-one has ever left a Last Night pumped up on xenophobia and gone out ‘Paki-bashing’. Their supposed ‘jingoism’ is merely a rationalisation of the contempt that ‘left-liberal’ sensibilities feel for them.
    As for ‘elitism’ well that is just another catchphrase of the left. What it actually denotes is that the event in question is based on skill and creativity and hence by comparison shows up the spurious nature of the self-regard in which the left like to bask because is is based entirely on self-estimation. For Labour politicians to accuse anyone else of that really is an exercise in the most abject hypocrisy.


      British patriotism ??…… No thanks

      • vieuxceps2

        Scottish patriotism? Scottish nationalism? They’re ok ,are they?

    • Chamber Pot

      The whole point of the proms is that they are a celebration of Britishness, of patriotism, which is why the Left is desperate to ‘ reform ‘ them, creating another ‘ safe ‘ space where no one does anything for fear of causing offence ? Perhaps we should invite Aswad to lay down some dub tracks. But wait a minute, we already have a Notting Hill carnival to celebrate all that enrichment ?

  • Mark

    Peter, exactly what do you mean by “The less savoury aspects of the Last Night”?

    If you mean the pink washed Union Flags of a couple of years ago or the breathless references to the sexual preference and gender of the conductor in 2013 then I would agree, but somehow I don’t think you do mean that.

    While we’re at it the British Legion Festival of Rememberance could do with a makeover couldn’t it?

  • trace9

    Spem in alium –
    Excellent suggestion for the inscription on Chares Kennedy’s gravestone. Thanks, one might have better had!

  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    Who cares? Why should it change to suit your or anybody elses strange whims? If the (ticket buying and hence relevant) public want change, they will simply stop coming. Hasn’t happened yet. Seems like yet another case of an organisation throwing its customer base overboard in favour of mirages of change. I might have misread the piece, but I think you are exaggerating slightly.

  • global city

    “less savoury”

    says everything about fadish commentariat pieces about the Proms really.

  • Precambrian

    “Now we have a Bernstein prom, a Sinatra prom and a Late Night with Radio 1Xtra, presenting hip hop to grime”

    Dear God, no!

    “but there is so little music from before Mozart”


    A little more baroque or early music and less of the crass modern drivel would be appreciated. The proms are supposed to raise the lower to a better state, not idolise the low and sink to its level.

  • “Less savoury,” “elitist.” Am I reading Pravda’s review of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk!?

  • justlookin

    Nigel Kennedy or Katherine Jenkins no longer cut the mustard. We need to move on indeed.

  • Simon

    A little less of the modern would be hugely appreciated. I was lucky enough to get a last minute seat a couple of years back which had both Beethoven’s 5th and 7th Symphonies. It was glorious… Apart from the middle section which was devoted to a modern composer. I can only assume he’d suffered temporary hearing loss, and was on crack cocaine when he wrote his ‘work’ (I would find it difficult to refer to it as music). Unfortunately I was stuck in the front corner of the box, so could not make a medical excuse to leave without creating a scene. Thankfully though, I was sat next to a strikingly beautiful young lady who was also shocked by the noise emanating from such a prodigious orchestra and was more than happy to join with me in questioning the capabilities of the composer. Sadly I didn’t get her number – beautiful and with a good ear for music…

  • Edmund Blackadder

    What the writer doesn’t say is why the proms needs evolution. Take away the elitist charge – and I wish someone would – and there is no reason why, year after year, the Proms should be diluted. We are constantly given the mantra about inclusivity and diversity etc etc, and yet never do we see pop and rock concerts asked to include classical music.

    I like many kinds of music, including some pop, rock, jazz and classical music, but I don’t need Bach at Glastonbury or rap music at the Proms. Can’t this country stand the idea of a festival of classical music for a few weeks during the summer each year? It seems that the concessions always have to come from the same sources nowadays. Or might I get somewhere with the plea for say, a string quartet on The X factor?

  • JD

    They should rename The Proms, The Poms. Whitest thing I’ve ever seen.