Monday, 12 September 2016

Practical and important improvements : BBC Proms 2016 Post Mortem

Now the Royal Albert Hall is quiet, though the cleaners and maintenance people are busy, let's take stock of the BBC Proms 2016 season and look ahead. The Proms are so big that plans are made many years in advance - that's the way the business work.  No doubt the figures will show good sales, which will please politicians and bureaucrats. But success isn't measured solely in terms of statistics.   Short-term targets are all very well, and box-ticking, but what of the longer-term future? Will the Proms honour the musical ideals of Sir Henry Wood or will they become a giant commercial splash promoting anything but serious music? 

First, kaput to the mantra that the Proms have to be all things to everyone. Proms for kids, Proms for minority interests, etc etc are a very good thing indeed.  Even party-time gimmicks have their place - that's why we love the Last Night of the Proms. But any business that loses sight of its USP goes down the tubes.  In the case of the BBC, that's a real danger given the competition from vested outside interests.  A few years ago, many moaned about the Michael Ball Prom. It brought in new audiences, yes, but not the core Proms audience, but audiences who thought that by hearing Ball at the RAH they "knew" about music.  Now, nivellement par le bas become the norm.  Even the Children's Prom, which not long ago was so good that even adults could enjoy it , is now more about being cute than getting kids enthused.  Will these kids grow up thinking that serious music is poison that must be coated in sugar? I know someone who was taken to the Proms at schools and hated the experience so much that she's assumed ever since that music is for middle-class toffs pretending to be Right On.  My friend, and many of her friends, are not fools. They can spot condescension a mile away.  Sir Henry Wood believed that ordinary people were capable of learning.  Now, those who make arts policy seem ashamed of excellence, trapping us in a counter-productive downward spiral.  

It's all very well to chaase new audiences, for that is the current mantra. But face demographics, and face the global market for the arts.  Through technology, the BBC Proms can reach millions all over the world.  In places like Asia - potentially the biggest market of all - people are brought iup to value cultivation. they look to the BBC as a beacon of high standards. Give them too much parochial drivel and lose their attention. 

Anecdotal evidence is that many Proms regulars are cutting down on what they attend. Driving  away the core audience is bad business : killing the goose that laid the golden eggs in the first place.  Although one could cultivate the proms as fun for tourists, the fact is that the British public is ageing. This year, I've witnessed many problems for people with disabilities. I don't know if the Royal Albert Hall,is exempt from normal Health and Safety regulations, but surely there must be ways for the BBC to make things fairer for those who can't leap up stairs and stand in the arena.  One obvious and very simple solution: keep seats with easy access for people with disabilities, so people with special needs can book ahead, knowing that they will be able to use seats that currently have to be booked blind.   One man told me how difficult it is just to come to the RAH, and then be turned away. Better even, he saiud, to spend a bit more than lose so much.  Not everyone who is disabled is in a wheelchair or is registered blind or whatever, but people have a right to come to the Proms and be treated with dignity. If these reserved seats don't sell close to date, then sell them openly. It can't be that difficult.  

Part of being a presenter is the ability to adlib while stages are being changed and so on, and that's a skill!  But it would help if the presenters were briefed and not just off Wikipedia.  Proms interval features vary : one of the best this year - by far - was the shepherd who spoke during the prom that featured Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Someone with something genuinely interesting to say, not just a motormouth. Also, as a voice person, I can vouch that at least one presenter needs a voice coach.  Take breaths for punctuation, don't let your voice squeak higher and higher , faster and faster, calm down and be natural.  Hysteria might be fine on some forms of radio (like sports), but it pains audiences who listen  to pitch and modulation. 


Roger Thomas said...

The suggestion of special provision for people with mobility problems (but not wheelchair-bound) is a sensible one. Ticket buyers who want to be certain of getting tickets for popular concerts feel constrained to buy online immediately after sales open but this, as the blog says, means booking blind. Reserving, for part of the booking period, some, not necessarily all or most, of the seats in the rows immediately below the entrance doors to the stalls, say down to row 8, shouldn't be an insurmountable problem for the Albert Hall's online box office administration. It just requires a tick box for something like "easy disabled access". This is unlikely to be subject to abuse -- quite a few able-bodied customers would probably prefer to be in row 3, for example, than row 10.

Talk of access to row 3 raises another gripe on my part. This is the irresponsible and cavalier attitude of the Albert Hall's ushers to allowing latecomers into the auditorium. Back in 2011, ushers on both sides of the auditorium evidently concluded there was a quiet moment when they could let latecomers into a performance of Handel's Rinaldo to go down to seats near the front. Unfortunately, the quiet moment was just before Luca Pisaroni started singing a difficult aria. He looked bemused but his professionalism kicked in. After the performance vociferous complaints were put to a senior usher but the complaints have plainly not been taken on board.

Latecomers, whether they have not checked the start time or have had transport problems, should not be admitted except at the interval or during a clearly defined hiatus such as a prolonged re-arrangement of the orchestra layout before a work. This year, in the second of Christian Thielemann's concerts with Staatskapelle Dresden, hordes of people were admitted after the first movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, to the obvious consternation of orchestra, soloist and conductor. The space between movements in a work is not in any sense an interval. Shamefully, one of the processions to the lower seats was led by a senior Albert Hall official (in grey suit, not red jacket). Significantly the intrusion came at 7.25, presumably some people had assumed a 7.30 start.

Please Albert Hall administrators, implement a strict rule on admitting latecomers, however stroppy they might be about having paid good money for tickets. Audiences, just like conductors (Gergiev take note) and orchestras, have a responsibility to be punctual. And please BBC put pressure on the Albert Hall administrators to respect the musicians and the audience that arrived on time and are deep into a performance.

Doundou Tchil said...

Latecomers out in force at Theielmann/Dresden when streams of 'em held up the flow of the music by trailing in during movements. It didn't help that some latecomers, with mobility problems had t be seated in middle row at the front : Not their fault, but spoiled the music for others. In fact one of the ushers who let them in then wasn't a junior but one in a jacket, who ought to know better

Doundou Tchil said...

Graham Jefcoate added : "Dumping some of the Great British Bake off-type proms would be helpful. Also improving audience behaviour by clearer instructions and better stewarding - won't forget the woman eating behind me (in a expensive seat). And doing something about the phones going off in the quietest moment should be a priority too. Is it Singapore that has technology to disable phones in the Hall? I'd also like more 20th cent British music, more 2nd perfs (rather than premieres) and more neglected composers e.g. Haydn."