Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Ghost of Sir Henry Wood? BBC Proms 2017

The 2017 BBC Proms Season, just announced, is a travesty, far adrift from the founding principles of the Proms, and indeed of the BBC itself.  Once the BBC stood for excellence, with its guiding principles to "educate, entertain and inform", the logic being that the public can tell good quality from bad, and value learning and self-development.  Now we have a Proms season whose priorities are not musical so much as an ad for a BBC that is itself dumbed down beyond recognition.  Will the ghost of Sir Henry Wood rise, like the Commendatore, to smite those who have despoiled his legacy?  

The First Night is only 70 minutes or so, so it won't tax the attention span. True, Igor Levit will play Beethoven, and Edward Gardner will conduct John Adams Harmonium, a big, if limited, blast. so it won't be bad.  But once we could expect more. Daniel Barenboim brings the Staatskapelle Berlin to "launch this year’s cycle of Elgar symphonies". Direct quote from the BBC Proms website. What Elgar symphonic cycle? One on Saturday, the other on Sunday. The Third, realized by Anthony Payne, is probably too outré for the new Proms market.  It's been pushed to the doldrums of late August. Thankfully, Sakari Oramo conducts: he does it well.  

What kind of audience is this year's Proms aimed at?  Read the summary here.  Sure, it's good to have pop, light music etc. but not at the expense of serious music. One of the basic principles of marketing is to believe in what you're trying to sell.  Raise the bar, aim for excellence, and grow the market .Pitch below the lowest possible denominator, and kill whatever audience you already have while lowering standards and decreasing expectations.  If the primary product is music, then sell music,. All the gimmicky sales patter in the world won't make up for non-product.  If people really believe  Scott Walker is a "Godlike genius", good for them, but don't downgrade Beethoven.

Why sacrifice an existing market to try selling to another which might have completely different priorities?  Or perhaps that is the hidden agenda. The Far Right, the commercial sector, and vested interests have everything to gain from dumbing the BBC down. Sir Henry Wood believed that people were able, and willing to learn. Now, we live in an era where any kind of expertise is sneered at. Getting ahead means dismantling the edifices of advancement.  There's a whole lot more at stake than just the Proms and the BBC.

Fortunately, some of the principles of Proms planning remain, since they follow rules so simple anyone can master them.  Add a few big names - Haitink, Christie, Rattle, Salonen, Bychkov, Gardiner - and the punters will pay.  Bring in the BBC orchestras, most of which are good enough to do serious music and do it well enough without scaring the unwary.  Mark non-musical anniversaries like "Reformation Day" a term Martin Luther would have baulked at, then throw in music that has little to do with one of the revolutions in European history.  Hire famous foreign bands like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, whom everyone loves, and a few cheaper ones. Throw in a few blockbusters like Schoenberg  Gurrelieder.(Rattle 19/8) .and  Handel Israel in Egypt on 1/8 (William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), Bring along an opera (usually Fidelio which needs little staging) and import a ready-made from Glyndebourne and bingo! The formula works, like a well-oiled machine, running with minimal human intervention.

Thus, for those who actually like music  there are other good things to seek out. Hidden under the banner "Take a musical thrill-ride from the chaos of creation" on 19/7 is Pascal Dusapin's new Outscape. Look out too for Thomas Larcher's Nocturne-Insomnia on 15/8  New British works - David Sawer's The Greatest Happiness Principle on 29/7, and Mark-Anthony Turnage Hibiki on 14/8. Excellent younger conductors like François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles (16/8), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (21/8),  and Jakub Hrůša (26/8 - good programme).  Formula is all very well, and formula has saved the season  Read my picks HERE.  But eventually it will not be enough to rely on mechanical formula. It's all very well to meet political targets but long term, it is music that matters, not flashy marketing.

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