On Music

Last swipe at the Proms

Is it time to give a grudging nod of acknowledgement to the BBC Proms?

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year in classical music journalism. The BBC Proms programme has dropped and it’s time to put the boot in. “It’s clichéd to be cynical at Christmas,” sang Half Man Half Biscuit, but this is Planet Classical and we’re never going to let the sheer predictability of a target stand in our way.

From the first apoplectic splutter as the brochure lands in late April — it’s like they don’t even care about the Joachim Raff bicentenary! — to the final spasm of confected outrage over the Last Night of the Proms in early September, that’s nearly six months’ worth of oven-ready reviews, thinkpieces and satisfyingly vitriolic denunciations, right across what would otherwise be the dry season. If you’ve got clicks to bait and columns to fill, the Proms are the gift that keeps on giving

Most of the gripes, now and forever, are about the programming

Coming relatively late to the party, and living outside Zone 6 — somewhere in the benighted 95 per cent of Britain where the Proms are less an unmissable highlight of the cultural calendar than something you overhear on the radio while draining pasta — it can feel a bit disproportionate.

Not all of it, obviously. The BBC is rarely less loveable than when proclaiming its own status as a national treasure, and with half a million concert tickets to sell, that can add up to a Storm Reith of self-promoting bombast.

Then there’s the culture (I don’t say cult) of Promming. Perhaps standing up through an entire concert is your bag. It isn’t mine. You might find yourself wedged next to the hungry bloke who (according to legend) unwrapped and munched a cheese and onion sandwich during the slow movement of Bruckner Nine.

It’s your call, though, which is one of the nice things about the Proms. The on-the-day tickets (which can be had online) really are unbelievably cheap (£6 this year). No, most of the gripes, now and forever, are about the programming. This composer deserves more; that composer merits less. If there aren’t many overseas orchestras, a narrowly nationalistic BBC has been hobbled by Brexit.

If there are lots, it shows a cavalier disdain for grassroots talent and, of course, the environment (delete according to hobbyhorse). Most of all though — and this, as Sir Michael Tippett might have put it, is as certain as the Zodiac — in any given season you can state with absolute assurance that the Proms have Dumbed Down. “Remember when the Proms were classical?” sighed my colleague Norman Lebrecht, under the headline “Berlin Phil and Philadelphia Orch to Join Dumbed-Down BBC Proms”.

At which point someone really does need to call a ceasefire. The Proms were founded as a Pops series: when Henry Wood premiered Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces in 1912 he played them between parlour songs, a comedy overture and a selection of lollipops from Carmen.

These days, it’s more compartmentalised. No-one’s forcing you to attend the Radio 1 Relax Prom, or indeed the Earth Prom (presumably aimed at anyone who’s ever watched a BBC nature documentary and felt that the music wasn’t intrusive enough).

To suggest that this is some kind of nadir isn’t so much snobbish as outright oblivious. So there’s a Gaming Prom: how is orchestral music from computer games any different, in principle, from Prokofiev or Walton film scores

The legacy of Aretha Franklin isn’t classical, exactly, but to question its musical quality … I mean, seriously? And a Relaxed Prom, designed for those (from small children to the neurodivergent) who feel ill-at-ease with the silence of a traditional concert sounds like an unambiguously good idea.

To suggest that this is some kind of nadir isn’t so much snobbish as outright oblivious

Plus, it’s hardly new. If you follow any major UK orchestra you’ll see pretty much the same mix. The CBSO presents Bollywood nights, the Hallé plays symphonic ABBA; and a decade ago the John Wilson Orchestra’s Proms — some of the most dazzlingly played, authoritatively researched exercises in historically-informed performance that this century has seen — were regularly denounced as “dumbing-down“ by the same Record Club Bore tendency that’s currently having the screaming habdabs over a spot of late-night jazz.

So all’s perfect, ever more? Hell no, and we can all play the game of “if I ran the Proms”. Personally? Well, with that much public money I’d feel downright obliged to ensure that every non-BBC funded British symphony orchestra got an invitation.

The Bournemouth Symphony and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic should not be absent from any Proms season, ever. (In fairness, concert-planning is like four-dimensional chess. Maybe they were invited and couldn’t come — we don’t know).

I might bear in mind that while anniversaries (and other fashionable priorities) are useful planning aids, it’s prudent to apply some quality control before devoting quite so much time to (purely for the sake of example, you understand) the music of Dame Ethel Smyth (see Opera).

But hey, Sakari Oramo is conducting Smyth’s Mass in D, and Oramo doesn’t mess about, so maybe I’ve got that wrong. Maybe he’ll change my mind. And if he doesn’t, we’ve still got Ilan Volkov’s contemporary experimentalism, the Berlin Philharmonic playing Schnittke, Alpesh Chauhan conducting Shostakovich and Leif Ove Andsnes in Mozart.

We’ve got the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, the Australian World Orchestra, Chineke! and the Oslo Phil; there’s a theremin concerto from Kalevi Aho and a concert that features both Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and the Tredegar Brass Band. Don’t tell me this isn’t the good stuff. Probably we should all stop pontificating, and start listening.

And we might even give an occasional, grudging, nod of acknowledgement that the BBC Proms — whether it gets it right or dramatically wrong — continues to give us such a spectacular abundance of opportunities to decide for ourselves. We could do worse. We usually do.

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