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.

More buzz please

LSO’s performance of Gruppen at the Turbine Hall demonstrates a rare thing in the classical music world we need more of: buzz

I couldn’t get to Gruppen at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. I should have jumped quicker to buy a ticket. I should have said yes to the person who invited me to join them (but didn’t because of a school reunion).

At the very least I should have asked the right person at the right time if I could get a ticket somehow. In the end, I left it all too late. Massive fail on my part.

None of this is me moaning, by the way. 

There’s been a buzz about the Southbank over the past week thanks to the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. First, the Philharmonia’s Gurrelieder in Paris documented on social media as a tantalising preview for the orchestra’s season closer on Thursday. Then yesterday, a much-anticipated performance of Gruppen by the LSO.

It’s not just that these season highlights were epic performances. They were both of them much-talked about beforehand. These were true events

People I spoke to in the run-up to both, were all excitedly asking the same question. “Are you going?”

That simple question has a devastating effect – it motivates you to get yourself a ticket so that you can share in an experience others are getting excited about. And when you can’t get a ticket, it prompts a bout of irritation about not having moved fast enough early enough.

And it’s not that I didn’t get to go to Gruppen that is important here. What’s utterly delightful is that two orchestral teams (players and support staff) are able to generate such passionate enthusiasm amongst their audiences. A wonderfully reassuring and invigorating thing.

Listen to Stockhausen’s Gruppen – in a concert that also features a performance Messiaen’s Et exspecto in a radio broadcast from last night. The music starts around 8 minutes in. 

An ostrich looking really fucked off

Gripes

Following a rant today on Facebook about workplace everyday-isms which really get my goat, I figured it might be useful to document those things which rub me up the wrong way.

Ta Da.

This blog post will be updated from time to time as more gripes come to mind, and linked to when the need arises.

So, if you want to ensure your communication assistance illicits a ‘yes’, best avoid the following.

Of course, publishing this list may well invite people to use them anyway. If you do, then I’ll know what kind of person you are.

In some cases, I’ve felt the need to offer an explanation.

1. Deffo

Just say definitely. It’s better that way.

2. Happy Days

3. Oh My Days

Just swear. It has far more weight if you actually swear.

4. Exciting or Excited

If you’re using either word you’re almost certainly not feeling either.

5. Exclamation marks

Only use exclamation marks for serious warnings. Using them is trying to force a sense of excitement on the reader and invariably draws attention to the fact that you can’t think of another word to better express yourself. Combining exclamation marks with the word ‘exciting’ or ‘excited’ and the intended effect is diminished.

6. Hope you’re well

No you don’t. You don’t really care whether I’m well or not. If you did care, you’d actually ask whether I was well or not, and you’d use a question mark at the end of the sentence.

Best not ask, because I will tell you in my response and it will invariably leave you wishing you hadn’t asked at all. Real life isn’t peachy and the depressing inevitability of it all cannot be overcome by the phrase “Hope you’re well”.

Just get on and ask me what it is you want me to do. Far more efficient. “Hope you’re well” is widely regarded as an ice-breaker, a tone-setter or a softly-softly way to start an email, based on the falsely held assumption that not using it is somehow abrupt or rude. It is a redundant phrase, however. Getting to what you want to ask is not rude. It’s efficient.

If you must ask how I am, be specific. Don’t be open-ended.

7. Literally

8. Metaphorically

9. Figuratively

10. Telly

It’s television. Or it’s TV. Not telly.

11. Align or Re-align

Eww.

12. Optimise or Maximise

13. Going forward

14. Cut-through or pick-up

15. To be perfectly/completely honest

I expect that anyone I’m interacting with is honest with me. If you’re not, then we shouldn’t be interacting with one another.

16. My Bad

Oh, fuck off. Really.

17. Mad Early

A derivation of ‘stupidly early’ and so technically acceptable. Often used to denote coolness.

Don’t be a dick. Don’t use it.

18. Emoticons or Emojis

Don’t use emoticons in your messages to me. They’re childish, lazy, weak-willed non-communication. If you can’t send me a message without an emoticon then you need to spend a little more time planning what it is you to want to say to me first.

19. “I’ve got to jump on a call at 1230”

The time is irrelevant where this particular gripe is concerned. It’s the verb that infuriates me. You’re not ‘jumping on a call at 1230’. You’re either taking a call, participating in one or joining one.

20. “I’ll ping/shoot you an email.”

Stop using unneccessary langauge to increase the importance of your message and/or yourself. You don’t ‘ping’ emails to people, you send them.

21. “All things … [INSERT WORD]”

A phrase used to denote importance when elevating the status of an event, message, or function. For example, “I’m responsible for all things digital at [INSERT ORGANISATION]”.

Just give us your job title.

22. The ‘super’ pre-pend

Don’t use ‘super’ as a comparator. Far from actually underlining how wonderful something is, you’re actually distancing yourself from the very thing you’re trying to emote about.

Also, you sound like a twat when everything is prepended with ‘super’.

If you’re about to use the word ‘super’ to describe something, then having a long detailed executive board meeting with yourself and come up with some new ideas.

Proms 2009: Prom 51 – Brahms Violin Concerto Joshua Bell BBC Symphony Orchestra

After Friday night’s Proms experience, I was more than happy to remain at home for this particular Prom. Unlike those who insist the only decent listening experience is in the Royal Albert Hall, ten minutes into the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Haydn’s Clock Symphony, I was reminded why listening at home is theoretically a nicer experience.

There are no crowds, air temperatures can be maintained at an optimum level and the sound mix on the radio is perfect. This is a live performance optimised for a radio broadcast. Consequently, assuming the performers are tip-top then the complete package will be perfect too. Perfection added to by the ambience provided by nearly 6000 people who have trekked across London in the searing heat and occupied their little bit of territory in South Kensington. I sprawled out on the sofa and turned the levels up high.

My personal bookmark for Prom 51 was Joshua Bell’s performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. I’d looked forward to it all day. After Isabelle Faust’s Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the daring (some still reckon foolhardy) execution of Tchaikovsky’s fiddle concerto, how would Joshua Bell deliver the Brahms? And would he make it alive from the auditorium if he did anything other that what the audience expected from this popular work.

Of course, I can’t be sure on the latter. I wasn’t there. But what I heard seemed clear enough.

Ask someone to give cast iron reasons why they’re in love with someone else and watch as they falter, stumbling as they offer joyless justifications for the emotional connection they hold dear to with the most important person in their life.

It’s the same with a brilliant performance. Listen to Joshua Bell’s rendition. Sure, I could list things like: the intonation was spot on; the way he phrased the theme in the first movement was exquisite; the ensemble playing was totally reliable. This would all be cold, uninteresting and pointless self-aggrandising babble. Flagging up anything negativity would achieve the same goal. It’s best not to say anything (which given that this posting amounts to approximately 500 words is stretching things a bit).

Instead, be content with the assessment that Joshua Bell’s Brahms Violin Concerto will definitely deliver – even to those who have never heard it before.

So good, in fact, it leaves me wondering just what mood Bell can be found in when he has an off day or worse, is caught playing one duff note. I’d like to see that – live in HD TV. I’d stay at home to watch it and I’d probably burn it to Blu-Ray too just so I have it for posterity.

After all, perfection isn’t everything unless accompanied by a smidgen of vulnerability, is it? I’m in no doubt Bell copes with off-days admirably. At least that’s the impression I get listening to him on the radio.