Sunday, 13 September 2009

The social phenomenom that is the BBC Proms

The BBC Proms are the biggest music festival in the world, and the most ambitious project anywhere in classical music, live or broadcast. There's no other single event - bar the Olympics, maybe - with such huge coverage. No wonder the Murdochs hate the BBC. It's serious competition.

Yet that's perhaps why the BBC Proms are so important. They provide a unique service which goes a lot further than music. The Proms promote an image of Britain as civilized and benevolent, bringing the world together and sharing good music. This pays off in the long term, despite the realities of "real" politics, Britain hasn't done as much for music as, say, Austria-Germany but it can make music reach the world. Cultural re-exports count, too.

And so what if the BBC is state subsidized? It is a public service, giving value in many ways that aren't easily itemized. Most businesses operate on what sells quick and fast, so are dependent on short-term goals. Why invest in anything whose benefits can't be measured on a year-to-year balance sheet ? Yet the BBC offers an alternative business model, where the market is carefully seeded, to yield long-term returns. That old slogan "Entertain, educate and inform" is sound business wisdom. Entertain an audience but with good things to aim for, so they learn: and when they learn, they seek more. Plus, an interest in serious music leads to other areas like literature, art, history, so the market expands exponentially. But give dumbed-down pap and the market never grows beyond it.

Public spending on education is going down the tubes, but in any case people aren't learning from school so much anymore but from the media. So the media has a responsibility to provide what schools no longer give. Plus music provides huge non-material benefits which can never be measured. The fulfilment classical music gives is an antidote to the spiritual anomie of our times.

One of the big things about the Proms is the way they're geared towards bringing in new audiences. Hence things like the Messiah Prom – hundreds of kid from all over the country got together and had so much fun they rejuvenated Handel's old warhorse. Read HERE about the Sing Hallelujah project which keeps the enterprise alive long after the Proms are over, and will bring in lots more listeners and participants.

Everyone niggles about the Proms being white and middle class, but that's what the classical music market is, largely, in this country. But outside the UK, the classical music audience is changing. That's why the BBC Proms broadcasts are so important - they reach new audiences which don't fit the mould. East Asia, for example. In the West, people don't even begin to understand how big that market can be, and why it's so important to "grow" it wisely. I'd like to see a lot more joint ventures between the BBC, China, Japan, South Korea, India. Indeed, it would be a good thing for this country to engage with world markets anyway. And even within this country the very fact that the Proms exist, and create attention, helps classical music penetrate further.

Of course there are dangers in becoming "too" popular and populist. What the Royal Albert Hall is wonderful for is big, noisy and brash, so large orchestral pieces, played with wild abandon always sound more "exciting". But is that kind of excitement necessarily good music? At least two new works this year were ideally created for that kind of instant impact, too. So what does this bode for other kinds of music, or for performances and for music that needs more sophisticated involvement? "

These days people form opinions from things like Facebook and Youtube, geared towards short attention spans. It would be fine if they progress towards the "real thing" but do they? Will classical music be repackaged to appeal to the majority, like fast food? Fast food serves a purpose but just because it sells doesn't make it worthwhile. This applies to musicianship, too. During one Prom this seaon, one of the hosts said a violinist was "dull" hardly before he finished. This was unfair because the violinist was good - no one really bad gets on the Proms unless they're connected to the BBC - but the damage was done, not just to the poor violinist but to the whole way music is presented.

The fact is that the BBC Proms are so omnipotent that they shape public taste and they shape music. That's why they have to be done with a sense of social responsibility. Now that so much of the audience is new to classical music, there's all the more reason for professional high standards, genuinely well in formed and enthusiastic presentation that matches the level of the music. The Proms should not be run along the lines of a commuter chat show. Maybe Dudamel conducting Augusta Read Thomas may sell, popularity isn't any indicator of quality. That is where commercial interests and the BBC remit diverge. There is more to music than instant kicks. The Proms aren't usually afraid to introduce new and thought provoking stuff that doesn't wow the balance sheet, but in a healthy society, minorities count too.

Fortunately this year the choice of repertoire was well balanced and sound. Some of the themes are daft (like 1934) but generally this was a very good year, not flashy but solid. Thank goodness too for off the wall stuff like the Ukulele Prom !

Maybe the world is heading towards things like snap judgements, twitter opera, Youtube orchestras, two minutte downloads and opinionation instead of opinion. These are all very different to the values that classical music used to be about. It is good that new audiences are coming in greater numbers, but this isn't necessarily the sort of audience that will nurture music that involves a bit more engagement, sophistication, perseverance. It's a paradox that that the Proms will have to think about.

The trouble with success is that it breeds its own demons. And success attracts jealousy. But what makes the BBC unique is that it doesn't follow any obvious corporate model. Its ambit was never simply to broadcast but to provide a wider service to society, not just the mass majority but minority interests too, and to further knowledge, not lag behind it. There's no way any commercial enterprise could function in the same way. It's idealism, perhaps, but it's still a good thing that in this world of self interest that idealism survives and is appreciated.

As for the Last Night and Britishness, please read what I wrote about Jerusalem (song not city), "What makes the British British" At least according to William Blake idealism is part of the British psyche. So the social remit of the BBC is rooted in the national soul. In this case, I'll back "repel all boarders" to keep anti idealism away !

PS Fond memories of Malcolm Arnold A Grand, Grand Overture which must have been written for the Proms with its roaring vacuum cleaners and rifle shots ! A friend recorded it in the perfect acoustic of the Reading Town Hall (a polished mahogany coccoon) in 1974 for what was to become Nimbus Records, so they used "ambisonics" the last word in sound reproduction. Only a demo disc was ever made but it was sought after by audiophiles for testing hi fi. I lent my copy to someone and it never came back. Whoever has it, please give it back !

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