BBC Proms 2019 – 15: Season End

A fifteen strong blog post series about the BBC Proms isn’t complete with a retrospective on the six week season. All captured here from a personal perspective. There’s some curmudgeonly-ness as you would expect. But it comes from a place of love, on the whole.

What’s been good this year

Losing the BBC-themed Proms in a bid to cross-promote BBC brands has been a real strength which reduces the self-referencing and focuses attention on the most important element: the music.

For all my moaning about presenters and the banality, hyperbole and in one particular case a fairly striking inaccuracy, TV direction has improved immensely. The core content (ie what the cameras are pointing at on stage) is a pleasure to watch.

I experienced the tweaked arrangements for Promming for the first time this year, though I’m not entirely sure those tweaks were introduced this year. Specifically, the opportunity to buy from a limited number of promming tickets from 9am, and being able to secure your place in a queue with a raffle ticket instead of queuing all day is a massive boon. This I understand was a development initially proposed by the Royal Albert Hall in the aftermath of the Westminster Bridge attacks. I see a slight change in the profile of the arena audience too which is, after a few years away from the experience, rather refreshing.

Visiting orchestras have provided the most exhilarating concert and broadcast experiences this year. Notably Haitink’s last London appearance with the Vienna Philharmonic including a breathtaking performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Emmanuel Ax.

Another boon for me has been the way I’ve reflected on the season as a whole. I’ve come to really appreciate the challenge of writing about a collection of concert experiences rather than one concert per post. It’s made for lighter touch writing, considerably less pressure, and more time for actual paid work. The weekly habit of ‘checking in’ has helped learn to trust (and remember instinctive reactions more and as a result meant that my focus on the performance and reaction to it in the moment has improved.

What needs improving?

Please overlook the pomposity of the question.

My biggest disappointment was the way in which contextual ‘entertainment’ generally left me seething. Contrived enthusiasm, banal answers to mindless questions, along with misjudged emoting in the aftermath of a moving performance create the impression that those involved are thinking only of making television rather than reflecting on what is actually going on in the moment: a live performance. The on-screen contextualisation of classical music still appears to go on in a bubble floating at various distances away from either the concert or, in some cases, the audience.

Someone does need to rein in the under influence of some record labels, although I wonder whether if budgets continue to be stretched and creative risk-taking is increasingly avoided whether we’ll see more and more safe programming and increasing amounts of hype around otherwise mediocre artists as a result.

Perhaps then the season’s greatest ‘weakness’ is its biggest and most demanding challenge in the years to come: reasserting creative risk-taking at a time when budgets are becoming ever more-squeezed. A turning-point for the Proms presents itself building on the integrity of creative successes like Aurora’s Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, education and inclusion like CBeebies’ Musical Trip to the Moon and the Relaxed Prom.

There is of course a ready made theme waiting in the wings for next year’s season: the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. There are a lot of assumptions, misconceptions and questions I have about Beethoven and his music. There’s a good deal of it I don’t know either. So, assuming that the stamina remains strong, there’s the opportunity to explore a whole range of different ideas, artists and ensembles. It will be interesting to see what’s on offer come the Proms launch in April 2020.

Flops and misadventures?

Let’s just keep this brief.

The Mozart Requiem with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was a bizarre performance. Infuriating too. Very disappointing.

The much-hyped CBSO concert with Sheku playing the Elgar Cello Concerto was surprisingly disappointing on stage, with some nauseating sycophancy and a clear conflict of interest in the inbetween presentery-bits.

The First of Night of the Proms lacked the sparkle I normally associate with the opening night.

Emoting before, during and after a performance on air just needs to stop. Otherwise, I’m going to get my mother to call the BBC and complain. None of us wants that.

On the subject of Proms Encore – the innovative and fresh new approach to TV programming about classical music that was neither innovative nor fresh (other than being done open air) – does I’m afraid, either need to go through a radical overhaul or just not be made anymore. So much effort and so much money for so much viewer irritation (at least viewers in SE6).

What has worked?

I started the season wanting to find out at what point my excitement grew for the Proms into what I remember it being 15 years ago, and to try and understand what was behind that excitement. That’s been an interesting question to reflect on during the season. It’s helped maintain my focus throughout.

The answer to the question seems very simple now. In the absence of a season programme that immediately delighted on a first glance, it was the comparatively straightforward process of visiting the Royal Albert Hall as a punter and promming in the arena or the gallery. Standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers peering at the stage there was a sometimes overwhelming sense that I had come home. Being in amongst lots of other individuals all communing with what was going on around them was a really powerful reminder of an experience I’d let go of in recent years. Promming especially has helped me reconnect with the detail in a performance, and I rather like that.

Listening to the majority of Proms on the radio and watching a few on TV has been a nice way of connecting with the Proms. It is a unique kind of classical music festival mounted in what is effectively a massive temporary radio studio in London SW1. Maintaining a distance whilst still being connected seems to work. Put simply, I think its probably best for everyone I’m not there in person.

Finally, two mentions for my favourites in this year’s Proms: pundits Kathryn Knight and the marvellous and utterly gorgeous Dr Hannah French. They are both the blueprint for the kind of presenters who I want to see more. I don’t really understand why they’re not anchoring programmes not least because in the case of Hannah, her Radio 3 presenting is a delight to listen to)

15 personal Proms moments this year

My favourite Proms experiences from this year, in no particular order

  1. Huw Watkins The Moon
  2. Shostakovich 11 (minus the post-performance emoting)
  3. Leif Oves Ansdnes playing Britten’s Piano Concerto
  4. James Ehnes playing Britten’s Violin Concerto
  5. Czech Philharmonic playing Shostakovich 8
  6. Dunedin Consort Bach Night
  7. Daniel Pioro playing solo Biber – stunning
  8. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra strings
  9. Vienna Philharmonic with Emmanuel Ax and Bernard Haitink
  10. Ulster Orchestra
  11. Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto
  12. Errolyn Wallen’s new work The Frame is Part of the Painting
  13. Pianist Eric Lu’s devastating second movement from Mozart 23
  14. Meeting Dr Hannah French
  15. Shaking hands with Dame Fanny Waterman

Final thoughts

My relationship with the Proms has changed. It’s complicated, not unlike untangling ourselves from the European Union (if that’s something you still insist thinking is a good thing for us to be doing).

I’ve longed to be a recognised part of it and spent many years enthusing about it too. But this year perhaps more than any other I’ve felt distant from it. Part of that is down to the programming. Another significant part is realising that I’ve actively had to ask for inclusion at certain events say like launches or hobnobbing get-togethers.

For some outside the bubble that will probably seem unsurprising. I am after all quite a grumpy sourpuss a lot of the time, up in my bedroom sneering and snarling while everyone else is enjoying the party downstairs. I like my self-proclaimed status as an independent commentator, believing that people recognise the usefulness of an objective (well actually, its subjective really, isn’t it?) I’ve ended the season feeling as though I’ve had to clip my own wings a little this year. It’s easy to believe one’s own hype. Perhaps its healthy to be reminded that you’re not as important as thought you might be.

But as the season draws to a close, so a new season of concert opportunities presents itself. At Wigmore Hall it even starts at the same time as the Last Night. So I don’t, unusually, find myself feeling sad the Proms is over. Quite the opposite. It now feels as though there’s a new impetus to throw light on the concert-making endeavours of multiple organisations up and down the country in the intervening months.

The BBC Proms is the town procession in which multiple floats and displays trundle on past. The really interesting stuff is what happens after the Proms. That’s where the classical music sector needs to feel the benefits of our ongoing attention, love and appreciation.

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