BBC flaps back at Guardian classical attack

BBC flaps back at Guardian classical attack


norman lebrecht

July 08, 2019

The BBC’s head of classical music Alan Davey has published a somewhat damp response to the Guardian’s editorial deprecation of the coming Proms season as dull and posh.

Here‘s Davey’s defence of his  sticky wicket:

Your editorial (5 July) asserts that “for the rich, events like the Proms provide status experiences that will convey bragging rights with fellow have-yachts”. It must please be noted that once again this summer there will be 100,000 seated tickets available for under £15, alongside 70,000 Promming (standing) tickets that can be purchased daily for £6, as the Proms continues its commitment to being one of the world’s most democratic festivals.

On the question of “What is classical music for?” you make some good essential points: that classical music is and never should be reduced to background muzak; it should not live in the past; it should not become simply a commodity. It should make the listener think, understand humanity, and feel more alive.

However, I don’t recognise the suggestion that the BBC Proms is “easy listening” nor that Radio 3 is a “complacent titan”. Radio 3 and the BBC Proms are among the most significant commissioners of new classical music anywhere in the world. Much of the music we play is not heard anywhere else, the BBC Proms indeed opens with a world premiere and new music features right through to the last night. On Radio 3 we play complete works, reflecting live music up and down the country, supporting talent making new work and working hard to redraw the boundaries of the canon, recording historical works by female and BAME composers that have not been widely heard before. So it’s curious the writer dismisses Radio 3, and the BBC Proms, orchestras and choirs for their work pushing boundaries in classical music – the BBC’s support in this area should never be taken for granted.
Alan Davey
Controller, BBC Radio 3 and BBC Classical Music



  • John Sorel says:

    What a wazzock – he’s missed the point entirely. He claims the Proms aren’t ‘posh’ – and launches straight into a statement about the ‘status’ they provide?

    Mr Davey, it’s not about the MONEY. It’s about the CONTENT. The Proms is supposed to be a ‘music festival’ – yet 90% of what you program can be heard in bog-standard concerts up and down the land.

    If you think people come for the ‘status’, in your pathetic Oxbridge college scarf, you are clearly the wrong person for this job.

    • Will Duffay says:

      What would you like to hear at the Proms, instead of the stuff of bog-standard concerts? And is it so wrong that the Proms contain lots of standard repertoire in addition to non-standard? My idea of some sort of hell is a festival comprising Parry symphonies and tons of crappy new music. The Proms mix it up, and do it well.

      • John Sorel says:

        Programming is not confined to repertoire, WIll. Programming also involves selection of artistes and orchestras. The BBC has huge clout when programming the Proms. How can it be a festival… if it just presents the same-ol’ ?

        One of the first Proms I ever went to was The Coronation of Poppea – directed by Leppard, I believe? Full and uncut. We never get such projects in the Proms these days – but conventional concerts don’t feature them.

        If I never hear anything by Parry again, I shall not regret it 😉

      • BrianB says:

        ” My idea of some sort of hell is a festival comprising Parry symphonies …” I agree, the festival should include the Stanford symphonies as well.

    • Stuart L. says:

      I thought Mr Davey’s response was well-measured and dealt admirably with the criticisms in the Guardian article (I assume that there should be a ‘not’ between ‘is and ‘and’ in the second paragraph!).

      Meanwhile – in response to John Sorel’s comment – I am unable to find any reference to ‘status’ in Mr Davey’s response as quoted above. Does this appear elsewhere?

    • TubaMinimum says:

      So on the one hand, you have the question of accessibility in terms of price (which they seem to succeed at admirably), but then you also have the question of being perhaps too accessible in the “bog-standard” repertoire. And you know, for the people that are most price sensitive and rarely see a live orchestra, they likely do want to hear more greatest hits repertoire.

      It probably is a challenge to be all things to all people. Classical fans like myself love a great summer festival that goes heavily on contemporary music. I want to hear something I’ve never heard before. But I have also had the chance to listen to some of the greatest orchestras on the planet in person fairly regularly.

    • Paul Carlile says:

      …errhh, did you mix up the original editorial with the reply by Alan Davey?
      Shome mishtake, shurely……

  • Simon Gregory says:

    ‘Much of the music we play is not heard anywhere else,’

    Well, at least he’s on the ball there. I wonder why it’s not heard anywhere else?

  • Esther Cavett says:

    When the bureaucrat Davis was given the BBC controller position 4 or 5 years ago, The Guardian let slip that Tom Service (a great Radio 3 presenter) had applied but was declined because of lack of management experience.

    What BBC needs is ideas not bureaucrats. Mr Davis has made a career working at a number of these slow moving places like Dept of Health

  • Mike Dobson says:

    Alan Davey has working class parents. He does understand a thing or two about all this !

  • Mike Dobson says:

    =====…”bureaucrat Davis… “.

    Err……you mean ‘Davey’ ?

    You could do with a bit of bureaucracy yourself, dear 😉

  • Jeremy Wardle says:

    Here’s Mr Davey, when he was head of Arts Council, spluttering his replies and waving his arms around a lot. Starts around 1:29 You’re right – he’s a bureaucrat, full stop :

  • Rob says:

    Is the BBC run by ‘freemasons’ as well?

  • KS Gardiner says:

    A ticket for the cost of 2 Starbucks coffees, or a McDonalds meal for 2. Very accessible for the average person.

  • Anthony M. Gigliotti says:

    On a different but related note, can anyone explained what happened to the formatting of the BBC3 web site? It’s gone from professional to something resembling the results of a beginning webmaster’s first try. It’s quite sad.

  • Dave says:

    I’m no fan of Alan Davey – lots of damage has happened on his watch – but his response in this case is not wrong. Damp, yes, but what do you expect from a bureaucrat?

  • Terry Birchmore says:

    The Proms plus Radio 3 promotes musical excellence – playing the best music of the past 300 years which has understandably survived and is enjoyed by millions, rarely played repertory that deserves a listen, and new art music exploring the boundaries of composition. Where else would you get such a rich mixture of art music played – certainly not on Classic FM. These things are treasures.

  • Tully Potter says:

    It’s hardly even-handed, Norman, to introduce Mr Davey’s comments by saying he’s on ‘a sticky wicket’. I address these brief remarks to John Sorel, too, whose statement that 90 per cent of what is heard at the Proms can be heard at concerts up and down the land is clearly b*ll*cks. I am not a statistician, but a mere glance at the Proms programme show him to be speaking from some orifice other than his mouth. The Proms have never been avant garde. As a musical historian, I often look at old Proms programmes and I find very little music in them that could have been described as up-to-the-minute at the time. What on earth is wrong with people getting together to have a good time, in the context of a classical music concert? Goodness knows we need cheering up at this date! I am a regular critic of Radio 3 and the BBC but let’s be fair.

    • BrianB says:

      Yet Henry Wood gave the London premieres of new music by Strauss (Richard), Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Mahler, Bruckner and Schoenberg (Op.16), Debussy, Scriabin, Bartok, Stravinsky, etc. as well as new British music. All new and often daring, some avant garde at the time.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Henry Wood also ran a weekly Beethoven night and a weekly Wagner night. Frankly the Henry Wood concerts were dreadful; the musicians were sight-reading a different programme every night for eight weeks with a pick-up orchestra.

        At least Henry Wood could claim with some justification that the music was never otherwise played. But only because London had no orchestra playing regular classical concerts until the Arts Council started funding full-time orchestras in the 1940s. The ridiculous Sargent kept the charade of sight-reading nightly programmes going into the 1960s (and the BBC even into the 1970s).

        The truth is that the modern practise of the major orchestras touring the festivals with a set programme (properly rehearsed) is infinitely superior to what happened before. And these days the BBC orchestras just need to fill in during the dog-days in the middle of the Proms. These are really the only concerts where there is an opportunity to play new works and other rarer repertoire (or British music, for those who like that kind of thing).

  • BrianB says:

    I wish we had a Proms in this country though the distances involved are problematic for attendance. And, yes, I’d gladly pay a radio tax.