Composer calls empty Proms a ‘true disaster’

Composer calls empty Proms a ‘true disaster’


norman lebrecht

September 01, 2020

We’ve been alerted to this tweet by Thomas Ades.

Watching the premiere of his new piece ‘Dawn’ by Simon Rattle and the LSO, one could only agree.

The vast Royal Albert Hall, capable of seating more than 5,000, rang hollow with new sounds.

How is it that no-one at the BBC could figure out how to get a couple of hundred people safely into the hall – if only into the standing spaces on the top rotunda? That would, at least, have given a bit of atmosphere.

But the BBC officials responsible just sat back, drew their pay and decided that doing anything original was just too much bother.

This is one reason why the BBC is losing the battle for public opinion.



  • Rob says:

    I thought his new piece, “Dawn”, was pants.

    • Schoenberglover says:

      I’m a big fan of Adès’ music but yes his new piece was a bit dull despite all the hype. But I think it had to be simple enough so that it could be played remotely with multiple musicians on Zoom, which is what he’d had in mind originally.

      • Evryali says:

        Adès music keeps this listener firmly at arms length and bewildered by the adulation surrounding him.
        A very chilly aesthetic, but some notable exceptions from earlier in his career : ‘ Under Hamelin Hill’ and ‘Darknesse Visible’

        I prefer the music of the composer he has done so much to patronage : Gerald Barry.

      • Cone says:

        Adès has a point here.

        A few hundred audience members, all wearing masks would surely be better than nothing.
        To make up for diminutive size it ought to be a perfectly balanced audience accurately representing the demographics of the UK.

        The following must be taken
        Into account :class, gender, sexual orientation and race.

  • Una says:

    It’s not the BBC as they only hire the hall. They don’t do the sanatising. It’s the RAH who don’t have willing staff to clean toilets al over thd place we here 200 might go. I think after watching two concerts on BBC4 that they have dfone a wonderful job in the circumstances and so creative. Yes, all us performers need an audience, but we are where we are. But not about letting a token 200 into a 5,000 seater hall.

    • Guest says:

      Absolutely right, Una. It’s not the BBC’s hall, and they have to respond to the risk assessments put together by the RAH.

    • Emil says:

      I find the urge to put a few hundred people at significant health risk just for vanity reasons (or worse, for acoustic reasons!) to be baffling, to say the least. Of course we all want the pandemic to be over, we all want to have in-person concerts, we all want arts to resume. Putting an audience – and the hall workers – at risk is not going to achieve that. Besides, as countertenor Alexander Chance mentioned on his blog earlier this month, are socially distanced concerts even enjoyable?
      Put simply, there’s no reason for the BBC SO to rush into concerts with audience.

      • Dr Tonreihe says:

        “Significant risk”?! Seriously?! Check out – less than 1 death per week in London (out of population of 9 million). Despite pubs and restaurants packed, family gatherings all much back to normal, many workplaces excepting white collar offices back to normal. Apparently 1000 positive test results per week in London, many more probably undetected. The population is gathering immunity, the virus is changing, the syndrome changes. Happens all the time with respiratory viruses. But not since the fall of Ancient Rome has an entire cultural ecosystem voluntarily psycopathologically actively and irrationally dismantled itself with scant plan to resuscitate.

        • Doc Martin says:

          There is as yet no actual clinical evidence of long lasting immunity to Sars-cov-2. I doubt the current vaccine candidates will pass muster.

        • Emil says:

          The fact that the pandemic is relatively under control while there are significant control measures does not mean that it would be under control without those mitigation measures.
          Just like the fact that it’s dry under an umbrella doesn’t mean you can close it and still be dry.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        I agree in principle, but I suspect that a 10% capacity audience — 500 people — suitably dispersed in the hall could probably experience a concert in reasonable safety, if they wore masks.

        • Emil says:

          There’s staff too. And they don’t deserve to be put at risk.
          And I come back to the wider point: enjoy what, exactly? RAH with a few hundred people will still feel like a graveyard, and it’ll just be weird and uncanny for everyone around.

          • Peter San Diego says:

            Good point about the staff. As for the concert experience: at least audience noise would be less of a problem, and candy-wrapper crinklers easier to identify…

  • BBC4 live performance.
    I thought the work was quite beautiful.
    Strange performed to an empty hall. However we are all living in exceptional times.

    • Avius says:

      Ades is unafraid to play in any style he wishes to!

      This piece is a 2020 equivalent to Ives Unanswered Question in my opinion, it is quasi minimalist but by no means easy!

      I say thank you Tom, lovely piece, please get it on youtube asap as it is not on BBC now!

  • Ian Munro says:

    The problem is the advice keeps changing. One minute concerts with audiences are given the go ahead then they are not. There are then the logistical issues of Royal Albert Hall staff as well, how many do they need to unfurlough, could one person, for instance, be able to man the box office when demand for a limited number of tickets would be huge and what happens if someone in the hall tests positive for covid? There is simply just too many hoops to jump through. Everything is different this year and we have to accept that. Just be thankful that we have some live music making to enjoy listening to or watching. Thomas Ades should just be grateful he got the commission and his new piece was broadcast on TV and radio. For now that is the new normal and we just have to accept that whether we like it or not.

    • Dave says:

      I would imagine that the ever-changing advice combined with the BBC’s paranoia about even small risks (cf. those gaping voids and extra fire-exit gangways that in recent times mean choirs are shoved off stage and far away up next to the organ) mean that audiences at their orchestras’ concerts are unlikely in the near future.

      As for the waste of TV airtime on TA’s stuff…

  • Lunchtime O'Boulez says:

    A Thomas Ades concert even without cov-19 would still have ahem no audience!

    • Avius says:

      Because Boulez is getting so many repeat performances of his music all over the world right?

      Silly sausage, Ades is neither an elitist or a populist he just composes, if anyone likes his stuff – it goes, he is cool with that, if not, he is also cool!

      Just so happens his music gets played all over the world and is enjoyed by ordinary listener and academics and musicians alike so Ades is merely doing what Beethoven did and a few others!

      Thank God for Ades and pity Satan for Boulez!

  • Ralph Bateman says:

    ==Thomas Ades should just be grateful he got the commission and his new piece was broadcast on TV and radio.

    Yes, well said. Moaners are gonna moan

  • Ralph Bateman says:

    I just saw program note “Due to uncertainty around the number of players permitted at the time of performance, Dawn is designed to work with an orchestra of flexible size, and with the players placed around the hall in any way.” So it’s written expressly for these circumstances and even the great Mitsuko Uchida who is still on stage from the Beethoven and Kurtag has a little bit to play.

    So Ades really shouldn’t moan

  • London Cellist says:

    As someone who is currently fighting their own battle with a venue to get a much-loved concert series restarted, I can confirm that in many places there’s a far greater willingness to find problems than to find solutions. Government guidance that’s totally unfit for purpose certainly doesn’t help, but whilst one place makes a mountain out of a molehill, another uses common sense and gets on with it! If the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam can manage to run the same concert twice in the same night for about 300 people each time, I’m sure so can the Albert Hall and other halls. It ultimately comes down to attitude, I’m afraid.

    • Player says:

      Yes! And not just the Concertgebouw but the slimmed down Salzburg Festival which put on Mahler, Bruckner 4 and Elektra. A lot of it is down to can-do attitude. It is not enough to say “the Govt won’t permit it”.

  • V. Lind says:

    It’s very trendy these days, at least for Conservatives, to bash the BBC for every ill known to man. Yet surely SD knows that the opening to audiences of the RAH is up to the Hall, and the BBC “blaming” them for it would be unseemly. Instead, when it had to make alternative plans for this year’s Proms, it went ahead and made them. Is it a surprise, let alone an offence, that they are different this year?

    You reported what happened in Prague. Why is there some assumption that it can’t happen in the UK? We are talking health — in some cases life and death — over entertainment options. And the BBC has managed to provide entertainment for the whole nation should they want it, withholding it only from a lucky couple of hundred who might get a live experience.

    • buxtehude says:

      Yes to everything and especially your mention of BBC-bashing.

      From abroad, and in comparison to American TV, its brilliance is apparent. You’re going to miss it when it’s gone, you in the UK, if you don’t defend it, and wake up one awful day to Rupert Murdoch 24-7.

  • Rich C. says:

    Q: What do you call watching a “virtual concert”?
    A: A YouTube video.

    • V. Lind says:

      What do you call a BBC drama — a “virtual play”? This is the 21st century. We are used to watching things on the tube. They are what they are, and some of these are live concerts.

      I am not comparing the experience of attending a concert to watching it on TV, or online, but this is a difficult time for everyone. we are wearing masks, keeping a 2-metre distance, shopping or eating out with plexiglass screens al over the place. For this time, we can also appreciate the efforts people make to bring us music in the best, safest way they can.

      And You Tube, DVDs and CDs, and other sources give us the chance to hear vast swathes of repertoire we will NEVER hear in a concert hall. Those who prefer to ignore them are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. But it would seem spite is their default position.

    • William Safford says:

      I understand your point, but there are valid differences.

      A live virtual concert is unedited. The virtual audience watches the performance unfold in real time, as with a live concert.

      There is an audience, that can interact, more or less, with each other and with the musicians, whether the virtual concert is live or prerecorded. This depends upon the platform, the chosen settings, and the use of those settings.

      I have participated in such events, both as a performer (live only) and as an audience member (mixtures of live and prerecorded).

      Question-and-answer times with the audience after the virtual concert can be rewarding for audience members and performers alike. They’re a bit like interacting at a reception after a live concert, except that everyone in the audience can listen and participate. This actually can be superior to live question and answer events. Plus, virtual audience members get to choose and mix their own drinks, rather than being dependent on the limited selection at the bar in the hall. 🙂

      As for YouTube videos, a YouTube video can be uploaded in such a raw state, but most often it is edited after the fact, usually substantially. In addition, I’ve never heard of viewers of YouTube videos interacting with each other on the YouTube platform while viewing videos, although I am not a YouTube maven and could be wrong.

      Virtual performance is a stopgap solution, until we are past this pandemic.

      Even after the pandemic, there will be uses for the skills and technologies being developed and honed today. Just four examples of many, come immediately to mind:

      – An audience that is too ill or immunocompromised to be in the audience for live performances, such as certain patients in a hospital or nursing home;

      – A performer who is too ill or immunocompromised to participate in a live concert, but who is able to perform from his or her home, hospital, or nursing home.

      – Performances for people in remote locations. This is essentially MetHD writ small.

      – Remote lessons. This was happening before the pandemic, but will probably become more common henceforward. This is especially helpful for students in remote locations without a nearby teacher but with an adequate internet connection.

  • Tom says:

    This was a lovely concert.

    However, could I draw those of you who are attempting to deflect any blame and attention from the BBC for the lack of audience to BBC sport please. There was quite an audience to cheer on Ronnie O’Sullivan in the relatively small Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. This was televised live to the nation by the BBC.

    It is ludicrous to suggest the BBC management are somehow being responsible or mindful when they pack in a sports audience into a small theatre because it is a sports event.

    The Albert Hall is vast. Quite how they cannot have included even a modest audience is beyond me. I agree with Ades. What a shambles and amateur lot the BBC management are.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      You make a very good point, Tom.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        Perhaps — but it still doesn’t address the question of whether it was the RAH management’s decision or the BBC’s. Do you have any information that might resolve the question?

      • Kenneth Griffin says:

        The snooker was a World Snooker event, with the BBC acquiring certain broadcasting rights. The BBC management had no responsibility for the spectators!

        The spectators were socially distanced, and also had to comply with specific Covid19 measures.

        This World Snooker event was the first of a very limited number of UK Government-approved trials for indoor sporting events with spectators.

        What exactly was Tony’s very good point?

        • Tom says:

          What exactly is your point Kenneth? Are you suggesting that the RAH are not sanctioning a small audience?

          The BBC books out the RAH for the best part of two months every year, putting on up to three concerts a day. It is the RAH’s largest money earner.

          To suggest that the BBC could not possibly have drawn up plans for a Covid safe audience is short sighted and naive. Look at Opera North, Snape Maltings, RLPO, Cadogan Hall etc etc. They manage it in far, far smaller venues.

          • V. Lind says:

            Managing far,far smaller venues is far, far less expensive and far, far, less risky.

            And it is still not the BBC’s decision.

          • Tom says:

            What rationale are you using to figure smaller venues are less risky?

            Could you tell me how you know it is not the BBC’s decision please?

          • V. Lind says:

            Fewer punters, easier to clean, less congestion at bar and washrooms, etc.

            I read somewhere that the decision regarding the opening or not of the RAH rested with them, and cost factors in terms of staffing, cleaning, etc. would not be acceptable given the low numbers of audience members that could be admitted. Sorry, I can;t source this so ought not to have stated it so declaratively.

          • Tom says:

            No need for the passive aggressive quotes either. It doesn’t do your argument any favours.

  • Nick says:

    Enough, enough, enough!!! The Salzburg Festival (live streamed and available until November), the Lucerne Festival (ditto), weekly concerts from the Concertgebouw (next one directed by Herreweghe) broadcast this Friday @ 20.05… Full orchestras (Nelson’s Mahler 6), choir (Muti’s Beethoven 9), fully staged operas, 93 year old conductor, 79 year old pianist, sizable audiences – did they all get ill or worse? Meanwhile in Little Britain we have bars, restaurants, beaches etc all rammed (even a Government policy to ensure people get even more overweight) – we know what the priorities are don’t we? Complete lack of will and imagination exhibited by our “cultural leaders”, lack of any alternative narrative in our mainstream media… Our economy has been willingly destroyed and the vast majority of our “socio-cultural” activity (my expression) likewise. Amen.

  • Anon says:

    I’ve been to two wonderfully socially distanced concerts at Snape Maltings Concert Hall over the last couple of weekends. They are even repeating the Benedetti/Ibragimova OAE Proms concert next weekend with an audience. Come on BBC and RAH, surely between the two of you with very limited numbers In the.audience and with the majority of the facilities closed you can manage to have an audience. The synergy between performing musicians and a live audience cannot be replicated through the ether.

  • violin accordion says:

    The Albert Hall devoid of audience should be shown as much and and widely as possible to draw attention to the situation, and to shame the government into action or at the very least communication to increasingly destitute and bereft musicians and artistes.

  • Jonathan says:

    Look on the bright side! In my corner of the UK, there have been absolutely no live concerts or theatre since mid-March, and advance plans cancelled through to Christmas. (Pleased to hear Suffolk is doing better). The psychology of seeing on TV a Proms concert which is actually happening – no audience in the hall, but a real audience of people like me – is such a boost.

  • pjl says:

    they had to plan in advance knowing the rules could change, as with the snooker where audience was allowed on day 1 then banned for 14 days until the final; it made sense for the regional orchestras to play in home halls rather than travel to London for a concert with a tiny audience. BBC is not perfect but people in so many countries envy us for having it and benefit from the World Service; for so many of us it has given us so much through Radio 3: Classic FM is just appalling by comparison with its music fed through a cheeseometer filter.

  • SVM says:

    To those who defend the BBC with the “it is up to the Royal Albert Hall” argument, keep in mind that:

    *the BBC is surely the Royal Albert Hall’s biggest, most lucrative, and most regular customer;

    *the Proms season is *the* iconic event associated with the Royal Albert Hall; and

    *the BBC’s bookings of the Royal Albert Hall are distributed as a contiguous block of bookings for 7 days a week over about two months, during which time there are no other major public events in the Hall.

    To characterise the BBC as though it were some small promoter at the mercy of the venue’s policies is absurd. The BBC has the clout and the means to collaborate with the Royal Albert Hall to find a bespoke solution that would enable a live audience. That the BBC has not done this speaks volumes…

  • If the BBC could not get its act together to stage concerts in the Royal Albert Hall – for whatever reason, be it RAH management or BBC management, the BBC has staged Proms in the Park concerts across the road in Hyde Park for years. If the 5,000 capacity Royal Albert Hall cannot be filled with a socially distanced audience for these concerts, why could the BBC not use Hyde Park to put on outdoor performances in the height of summer? The longer this goes on and priority is given to sporting events, the more obvious it becomes that the BBC is not really the custodian of the Proms it purports to be.

  • says:

    At least the performances were good, as here:

  • Peteranon says:

    For me there is something added by the lack of audience – no rustling, inappropriate applause and absorption of sound. Listen to Jonathan Scott’s wonderful recital to hear the organ at full power.

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    Surely all the boxes at RAH are socially distanced? Every one of them could have held a ‘bubble’.