Post-BBC Proms 2019 Launch

It’s still a little weird grabbing print from a BBC event.

I look at it and think about how I should be feeling – how I remember feeling.

Then there’s a jolt and I’m reminded how I feel seeing it now – an odd mixture anger and disdain. To explain the difference would be massively dull and boring to read. So you know, consider yourself saved.

What’s key here is the unexpected experiences had at this year’s launch event: people coming up to say hello, to introduce friends and colleagues, and to ask when camera rehearsals start for the TV coverage.

Fools.

One or two still don’t realise it was an April Fools Joke; those that did just remind me how much I want to do it.

No matter – that ship has sailed.

I started the day dismissive of this year’s #BBCProms season.

I end the day (with a few glasses of wine inside me) feeling a little more warmly towards what is a fundamentally dull offering.

“It’s the money,” said one orchestra bigwig, “there’s no money for the interesting stuff. Not anymore.”

There needs to be more money for it in future. This year we’re selling the genre short.

First glance at the BBC Proms 2019 Listings

My worst fears are confirmed: I’m not the archetypal Proms audience member. At least, not anymore.

Nearly all of the hopes and dreams listed in my previous blog post have now had line drawn through them. I fear I’m no longer the Proms ideal audience member.

But, because the Proms is an old familiar for me, I’m going to have a scoot through the this year’s events for anything that takes my fancy and share them in this post.

Other associated thoughts and feelings included as you would expect and, as others will no doubt roll their eyes at.

Can a seemingly bland season transform itself?

There’s a good reason for taking this systematic approach to documenting thoughts and feelings in response to the Proms.

In my experience – this will be the fifteenth consecutive year I’ve blogged about the ‘classical music’ festival – my enthusiasm builds between launch day (today) and First Night (mid-July).

In that way I’m anticipating there will be a change in my thinking about the season (its happened most years).

I’m interested in tracking how that enthusiasm changes on the day of launch, from reading a press release online late at night, to scrolling through the listings first thing in the morning. Does a launch event (this evening) change my outlook? What about when I have the brochure in my hand? And come July, will the words on the page have turned into an uplifting sense of anticipation?

You can’t fake it if you don’t believe it

I’m with Andrew Clements on this. I never really thought I’d say that. I normally kick against what’s said in the ‘mainstream’. But there isn’t anything here that excites or delights me. There’s little intrigue. And very little to fuel curiosity. Most programmes feature standard repertory (good for the newcomer to the art form), and whilst there is key performing talent dotted throughout the season, there’s nothing that leaps off the page as a must-attend event. (Well, maybe Rattle and the LSO. Maybe the Vienna Philharmonic.)

If I was coaching for performance, I’d say ‘fake it until you make it’. Here, I’m of the mind that you can’t fake enthusiasm if you don’t genuinely feel it. And so far at 9am on the launch day, I’m not sensing the enthusiasm yet.

Alternative perspectives

Some of this might be down to any number of alternative perspectives I’m pondering (which are also worth throwing into the mix here) – questions and statements which genuinely fascinate me.

I’ll list them. It looks neater that way.

  1. Have I grown out of the Proms?
  2. Was the Proms always ostensibly a gateway to the classical music world only I didn’t realise it 15 years ago?
  3. As I’ve become more familiar with the repertoire, different genres and performers, has the Proms served its purpose for me as an audience member?
  4. The BBC Proms has to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to meet is public service mission.
  5. Am I basically an impossible audience member to serve? I imagine the BBC Press Office would concur.
  6. It’s all about the young people. I’ve moved into the older bracket now, only perhaps I just hadn’t realised it.

Part of a wider strategy

There’s also a line of thought that says that the Proms season is just another ‘content block’ which provides the BBC with an opportunity to align what’s broadcast with its BBC Sounds app strategy.

I’ve written about BBC Sounds app before and how, broadly speaking, its a technology-based way of changing the way audiences perceive the BBC.

Radio networks will, as far as I can make out, be phased out, and in its place people will come to the BBC Sounds (or whatever its called then) in search of themed content around programme brands, according to mood, or genre. In this way, building concerts around themes that appeal to a wide audience base is key (this being different from theming concerts around an anniversary or artistic vision). That’s valid, of course. That’s the BBC ensuring it reaches the most people not just, as in the case of the Proms, those inside the concert hall.

And I can see how if on-demand content is available via the BBC Sounds app, how it would be possible should the need arise in the future (say when the BBC charter is next reviewed) to start charging a subscription for on-demand, leaving live broadcast free-to-air.

The Proms provides a testing ground for the carving up of broadcast content in such a way as its appeal is optimised via the BBC Sounds app and the rate of audience engagement with it is increased.

The impossibility of the Proms

And this reminds me of another point. The now impossibility of the Proms. It has to sell tickets so that the Licence Fee season subsidy doesn’t increase. That subsidy can’t increase. If anything it’s going to go down.

In this way the BBC Proms needs to be even more of a commercially-rooted proposition. It has to strive to stand on its own feet more than ever before. That means guaranteeing ticket sales. That also means programming concerts that people want to buy tickets for. And its got to be content which people want to listen again to because of the content itself, not because its the Proms. Because, the biggest gains are to be found by reaching the majority who aren’t like me or my classical music-loving peers.

If you were trying to set up the Proms for the first time today, you probably wouldn’t do it. That’s the impossibility of it. Maintaining the brand means reflecting shifting audience curiosities. And because reach is all important, those shifting curiosities are going to be entirely different from mine.

Good stuff

All this said, my initial scoot through the programme has been via artists rather than running orders. I’ll revisit the brochure in weeks to come and post on the blog accordingly. In the meantime, a handful of things which has caught my eye (just).

Martha Argerich
Legend. I’ve seen her at the Barbican in chamber music. I’ve seen the Netflix documentary made by her daughter. She is a terrifyingly brilliant woman. I’m placing a bet on her concerto appearance being a pre-season artist change.

Leif Oves Andsnes plays Britten’s Piano Concerto
Second only to Steven Osborne playing it at the Proms twelve years ago (thereabouts) Andsnes’ recording of Britten’s concerto is rip-roaring fun.

Conductor Jessica Cottis
She’s featured on a Thoroughly Good Podcast episode over the past few months. Therefore I’d quite like to go along.

Joyce DiDinato singing Berlioz Le Nuits d’Etes
Watched her talking about Le Nuits d’Etes in John Bridcut’s brilliant documentary about Dame Janet Baker. I was sold.

James Ehnes, Royal Academy of Music, Juillard School
I’m including this for four reasons: first, it’s James Ehnes whose playing I fell for at the Verbier Festival a few years back; second, he’s playing Britten’s violin concerto; third, I like the idea of the Royal Academy and Juillard coming together in a concert; and fourth, the Royal Academy were the only organisation to send an embargoed press release about their appearance in the Proms ahead of the season launch (the BBC didn’t – at least not to me) which meant their event gained greater (and well-deserved) prominence as a result. Nice work Royal Academy of Music Press Office. Take tomorrow off. My treat.

Nora Fischer
I’ve interviewed Nora for a Dutch Centre/DG promo last year. She was fascinating. And the album she was promoting then – Hush – remains on my regular playlist. I haven’t seen her in the concert hall before.

Pekka Kuusisto
This might sound a little odd to say, but Kuusisto is the only musician around today who when he plays – no matter what he plays – a charge goes through my body. He is the hottest player with a captivating madness about him I absolutely adore. He could play a C-major scale and I’d be enthralled.

Solomon’s Knot
Under the embarrassing sub-header ‘The Will-It-Go-Wrong-Prom‘ Solomon’s Knot’s are described as singing from memory, people who look you in the eye when they perform and, according to Proms director David Pickard, “They’re a young baroque group, who’ve just sprung up but have quite a big following.” My understanding was that they had been going for quite a few years, and had worked hard to build their audience because of their distinctive and energised approach to performance. Maybe that kind of copy doesn’t really work for the curious audience member. Even so. Solomon’s Knot are brilliant. Saw them last year in Guildhall.

Ulster Orchestra
Good to see the Ulster Orchestra back at the Proms.

Tenebrae
And because I’m a fanboy, seeing Tenebrae doing a Late Night Prom (now renamed as a ‘Late Night Mixtape’ with music that will ‘calm the mind) feels like something I might consider going to. If not, I’ll listen on the radio. Tenebrae are brilliant.

Pre-BBC Proms 2019

Big night tomorrow night. Kinda. I’ve already received one embargoed press release about the BBC Proms (I haven’t read it yet by the way).

So, assuming I might receive another before midnight (unlikely), I figured I’d list my aspirations for this year’s season. They don’t care, obviously. It’s too late to change anything anyway. They’ve not only gone to print but the printers have almost certainly gone to bed.

This year, I’d like the BBC Proms to …

1. Be like it used to be in the Kenyon days

Surprise me. Delight me. Challenge me. Give me stuff to rail against. Don’t make it easy.

2. Not do any cheap tie-ins with record labels or BBC properties

The Proms shouldn’t be about cheap promotion.

3. Tell inspirational stories about the value of classical music

Don’t just say it’s amazing, show how it is. Journalism not marketing. Marketing is boring.

4. Introduce me to something niche

Go on. I dare you.

5. Stop overlooking the likes of me because you think the only way to secure the next generation is to put the next generation on screen

Maturity has value. Heritage counts for something. You saw the Briduct/Baker doc didn’t you?

6. Restyle the Last Night

It’s an embarrassing own goal. An anachronism.

7. Make me feel a part of the Proms again

This one is difficult for the Proms. It’s not all them. It’s partly me too. But for a few years now I’ve felt like a kind of an irrelevance. It’s made me wonder whether you’ve lost touch.

8. Stop assuming that criticism of you as a brand is personal criticism of your team

This. Isn’t. New. Only last week a ‘BBC REPRESENTATIVE ON THE PAYROLL’ took me to task about a tweet I published. I was mortified. It was a very awkward conversation. And it’s the second conversation I’ve had of that ilk. The one behind was about my comments concerning the Eurovision. I shit you not.

The stuff the Proms puts on is not about the people who put it on, it’s about the art. And the art should be open to comment. Because if it isn’t, it’s not really art.

9. Know that the wine (when it’s free) can be mediocre, because that’s not important

Spend the money on the artists. That’s what’s important.