The Last of the BBC Proms?

In my monthly essay for Standpoint magazine, I assess the bleak future for the Proms and two of the BBC orchestras as new management and financial assaults dismantle the old defences.

Proms controllers for the past quarter-century — John Drummond, Nick Kenyon, Roger Wright — fought to protect the festival’s unique character from interference by the rest of the BBC. When Wright signed off on the first night of the 2014 Proms, the resistance ended. It will not be revived. The incoming Proms chief, David Pickard, is a former yes man to the Glyndebourne set. His boss, the Radio 3 controller, Alan Davey, is a career civil servant. Both are Musilian men without qualities, ill-equipped to withstand the coming storm.

The next phase is commercialisation.

I have some new figures and some distressing facts. It’s looking seriously bleak.

You can read the full essay here.

bbc proms

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  • Is the incoming BBC proms chief David Pickett in any way related to the recorder player Philip Pickett – currently ‘serving time ‘ in one of HM’s prisons? Or is he related to David Pickard, the former CEO of Glyndebourne Opera and previously of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment?

  • And it is not only the BBC – at last night’s Prom, by the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg, their conductor, Francois-Xavier Roth, made a gentle but passionate speech about his orchestra’s pending merger with another next year. This was the orchestra’s first ever visit to the Proms, and sadly, perforce, their last. Cultural reach and activity needs orchestras… Echoing his sentiments, a warm audience (and the Prommers are some of the most loyal in the world), applauded him and the orchestra until well after every performer had left the stage…

    • You should have seen the look on the face of the Acting Proms Director after the speech. I suspect that M. Roth will not be invited back any time soon.

    • Unfortunately, the “loyal” Prommers are also a dying breed. On most nights, the Arena seems to be dominated by people who do not know how to behave at a concert. They use mobile devices, they slurp their drinks in noisy plastic cups, they whisper, they whisper profusely, they noisily alternate between standing and sitting/lying on the floor, all during the performance. I am not against ‘new blood’, but if someone cannot or will not respect basic concert-going etiquette (it neither snobbish nor ‘inaccessible’ to expect people to stay quiet and keep mobile devices firmly off), he/she should stay away (as I explained to one person who had the temerity to accuse me of being rude because I had gently pushed her camera-‘phone downwards to prevent her from successfully taking a photograph during Shostakovich’s /Orango/). Sadly, the stewards are doing almost nothing about the problem; as a result, Proms concerts have become almost ‘inaccessible’ to musicians, connoisseurs, and music-lovers. The only reason I continue to attend as many Proms concerts as I do is because the Proms still (but for how much longer?) put on works which are very rarely performed live in the UK. Artistically speaking, I also thoroughly approve of the fact that such rarities, instead of being pigeonholed by themselves, are integrated into programmes that are wont to also feature ‘core repertoire’ and music from different eras.
      Mercifully, the riff-raff of philistines was largely absent from last night’s concert (although the mobile telephone that rang at the very end of /Lontano/ was a huge blight), despite the presence of a ‘core repertoire’ work in the programme (Bartók’s /Concerto for Orchestra/). We did indeed applaud until after the last harpist had left the stage: hearing this compelling orchestra perform live truly brought home the horror of the impending merger, despite my having been aware thereof since 2012 (and in opposition to which I had signed a petition).

      • SVM is quite right. Three Proms this year were enough for me: not only the arena audience but those who sit in the stalls and boxes (it’s picnic time folks, never mind the musical malarkey going on down there!) don’t know how to behave and couldn’t care less whether they spoil the enjoyment of others (slurping from champagne glasses, canoodling, constant fidgeting and coughing are just some examples I could give). And before the political correctness mafia start sending tirades of disapproval in my direction, the policy at the Southbank Centre, where Jude Kelly and her acolytes think music is an appalling distraction to one women’s festival or celebration of Third Third values after another, hasn’t worked either. We were told that opening the doors to all and sundry would bring in extra audiences. There has been no significant increase in audiences for classical events there. Carry on dumbing-down, you mindless bureaucrats: the politicians will love you.

        • I’m impressed you managed three, AH. I stood at Mahler 9 last Saturday and was dreading the experience after hearing that the clapping mafia were still imposing ‘their way’ of music appreciation on the rest of the audience. But here we had apparently a more educated audience. Respectful silence between movements. However, in an auditorium the size of the RAH there will always be unthinking idiots. One such in my vicinity couldn’t wait until the last note of the final movement had expired. He knew when the music finished and was waiting to show us all by being the first tò burst into loud applause, ruining the moment. I won’t bore you with the usual moans about hen-night picnics at Birmingham Royal Ballet, compulsory eating during cinema showings of opera and theatre performances, etc, etc. Radio, DVDs and CDs will be my music media of choice in the future. Cheaper and far, far less stressful.

  • “The BBC’s two London orchestras are in real and present danger of extinction.” Says whom? Have you any evidence? And let’s not go there about playing things “at a blink of an eye”.

  • ==The five BBC musical ensembles…cost £25 million a year.
    ==Radio 3 reported a £38.4 million budget in the 2014/15 published accounts

    I don’t understand why the orchestras are in danger if there’s still £13m+ in non-orchestral funding.

    • Not sure where you get the £13m from. The full cost of Radio 3 last year was £55.1m (including spend on programming, including the Proms, of £38.4m). The orchestras have a completely separate budget. Last year their total cost was £32.5m (content £26.3m).

      All this is peanuts when you consider that BBC One cost in total the best part of one and a half billion last year. And BBC Two cost more than half a billion.

  • A certain scepticism is in order, Norman: there was no ‘power vacuum’ between the departure of Roger Wright and the start of the 2015 Proms, in which BBC conspirators wrested editorial control of any Proms for their corporate purposes: Roger is on record as saying (Radio Times July 2013) that by the time one season begins, the following season has already been completed. Thus, by the time he left, the current season – complete with the various radio Proms – had been planned. So, if there was a coup, Roger himself caved in. Ockham’s razor suggests that he planned them. He may even have pencilled in more for next season. And the next.

    • I have it on good authority that Wright’s sudden resignation – timed to cause as much trouble to the 2014 season as possible – was a reaction to being forced to sign off the Radio 1, 1Xtra, 6 Music and Asian Network proms for this season, concerts that he had neither planned nor supported himself and which were foisted on him by the upper echelons of BBC management.

      Norman is right to say that the Controller of the Proms no longer has control of the Proms, and only wrong to imply that this happened after Wright’s departure (although the complete spinelessness of the current incumbent won’t have helped). Wright attempted to fight it and lost; Pickard will not be able to, having bought into the situation by accepting the job.

      • I suspect your authority is not as good as you think. In my understandingh this was not the immediate reason for his departure, or for its timing, unfortunate as that was.

        • Agreed. Far more likely to have been the appointment of a Director of Music over his head, and – almost certainly the abolition of the Classical Music Board – which Roger chaired. An FOI request was submitted, asking if the very recently constituted Classical Music Board still existed and the BBC response was ‘We’re not telling you.’ Which presumably was the equivalent of ‘No, it’s been abolished.’

      • I’m not sure that the ‘radio Proms’ are any less acceptable to someone who programmed The Pet Shop Boys, Laura Mvula, Paloma Faith and Rufus Wainwright – or was that the idea of the upper echelons too?

  • “The budgets…….for the Proms, five orchestras, and Radio 3, amount to less than one-third of the £204 million the BBC agreed this year to pay a greedy Premier League for an hour or so of edited football highlights on Saturday nights.” Really shocking figures given that the Premier League has extremely high ticket prices and no shortage of willing sponsors.

  • Sir Adrian Boult told a story about the Proms which involved two ladies and a dramatic silence during the music. “We always do ours in milk” he heard one of the aforementioned ladies say to her friend cutting through the high drama of the performance. That was 40 years ago.
    You are guilty of perpetuating the myth of concerts as high temples of high art. Worse you celebrate elitism as opposed to excellence and this article and the responses are riddled with a distasteful attitude to fellow concert goers.

  • But, Pooroperaman, the worst sound is at the front, unless it is a late Prom with a chamber group. To get a decent blend of the different sections of a full symphony orchestra, one needs to be at least a quarter of the way back, preferably much more, as in most concert halls, and this one when it has seats in the Arena, and not too far to either side.

  • How, Iain Scott, is wanting the hear the excellence you refer to, and which one has paid to hear, uninterrupted by conversation, other extraneous noises, and applause in the wrong places, “celebrating elitism”? Correct concert etiquette is a mix of common sense, courtesy to one’s neighbours and sheer good manners. If they are elitist then I suppose you are right.

    I recently visited a major new concert hall in Copenhagen, the director of which actually boasts of encouraging his audiences to speak, move about, eat, drink, make phone calls and take photographs and videos during classical concerts. This policy, he claims, is intended to attract new audiences to attend. It seems like a bear pit, and I would never choose to go there.

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