Reflecting on the Proms 2019

The Proms have announced their 2019 season, and as usual both programme and opinions on it are varied. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood is alongside cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Edward Elgar beside Nina Simone. There are themed concerts ranging from sci-fi film music to Queen Victoria’s piano, to a concert based on best-selling book The Lost Words. On the surface, it’s pretty broad. But is it broad enough — or even too broad?

Classical music commentators and listeners have been quick to voice discontent with the season programme. The complaints this year seem to have fallen into the following categories:

  1. Too many well-known names, and the programme isn’t adventurous enough
  2. The Proms are “dumbing down”
  3. Too much “non-classical” music
  4. Too many themed concerts
  5. Programming isn’t diverse enough

Before saying anything about the content of the Proms programme, it’s important to flag up that the Proms remit is both vast and vague. It is a classical music festival that aims to bring classical music ‘to the widest possible audience in an informal setting.’ This is no mean feat, because classical music listeners/Proms attendees are hardly a homogeneous group — and potential Prommers even less so.

Programmers are facing a pretty tough job. They have to keep seasoned Prommers happy, but also try to reach first-time Prommers. Maybe these will be children, maybe they’ll be listeners who don’t know much about classical music, or maybe they’ll be listeners who know every Myaskovsky symphony inside out but haven’t been/listened to a Prom before. So programmers need to experiment, to see what engages which audience members. Inevitably for the Proms to stick to its remit, they can’t keep everybody happy all of the time. If every Prom pleased everyone, they wouldn’t be doing their job very well. 

So certainly, I sigh when I see yet another Beethoven symphony on the programme, or people complaining about there being only two Mahler concerts this year. 

BUT. And this is a big but. 

I trained as a pianist. I am now a musicologist specialising in classical music. It is literally my job to spend time listening to this music, exploring it, and seeking out lesser-known music. As potential classical music listeners go, that’s pretty unusual. And, crucially, the Proms isn’t just for listeners like me. I went to the Proms launch last night, and in his speech opening the festival, director David Pickard raised an important point. He pointed out that many first-time Prommers go for the “big name” performances, like Tchaikovsky & Beethoven. Seasoned listeners might be tired of the well-known pieces, but many people haven’t heard them live before, ever. This isn’t to say that the Proms should become an annual repeat show, and trot out the same pieces year on year. Just that the “big name” concerts are good for drawing in first-time Prommers. (If we want to change who the “big names” are, that’s a longer project. See below.)

As for the “too much non-classical” complaints — firstly, classical music doesn’t exist on an island. It’s influenced by and interacts with other genres. That’s as true today as it always has been. Grieg was influenced by folk music, Gershwin wrote pieces influenced by jazz, Nico Muhly has collaborated with Björk… The inclusion of “non-classical” on the programme seems to at least try to reflect that classical music is a living, changing, and evolving practice, and genre exchange is part of that.

Which brings me to the “dumbing down” complaints. I’m not quite sure what “dumbing down” refers to here. There’s a stellar line-up of performers this year, so I assume it’s not to do with performance quality but is instead tied up with the inclusion of “non-classical” music on the programme. 

This really troubles me, because this is a very one-directional perspective. It assumes a hierarchy in which “classical” is “better” than everything else, and if the Proms are educating, they should be educating people about the wonders of classical music. But let’s pause for a second here. What if the inclusion of “non-classical” Proms is as much about educating regular Prommers and established classical listeners, as it is about attracting new listeners? 

At the Proms launch, beatboxer Jason Singh (Prom 49) played a set alongside vocal quartet Solomon’s Knot (Prom 38), before they both joined together for an impromptu improvisation. And I’m so grateful that I got to witness these performances because they were artistically incredible, and I feel like I learned a lot about beatboxing, performance practice, and live improvisation. Having experienced Singh perform live I will now be tuning in to Prom 49 as well as Prom 38, and I’m going to try and seek out some more spontaneous, improvised performances this year. I’m very used to seeing highly rehearsed performances, so I enjoyed being taken out of my comfort zone a bit and it’s an experience I’ll seek out again.

“Classical music” isn’t just about musical works. It’s about the people who write them, perform them, listen to them — about community, process, and practice. “Classical music” is what the classical music community makes it. So I can’t agree with the “dumbing down” and “too much non-classical” complaints. Having non-classical music on the programme is an opportunity for regular Prommers to open their minds and ears in what is still clearly a “classical music” festival, and maybe learn something new from the season. Hopefully, this will also be a way of making the classical music community more inclusive and less judgemental. How is classical music going to attract new listeners, if the overriding impression new listeners get is that for the classical music community, anything “non-classical” isn’t welcome, is less good, is not worth listening to at all?

As for educating about “classical music”, this is one area where I feel the Proms are doing a stellar job. Sure there are gaps. But the Proms can’t do everything. Their remit is not to provide a comprehensive musical education. They seem to be trying really hard to reach out to kids (particularly with the themed and family-friendly Proms), and when music is getting so little funding in schools this kind of programming is so, so important. Sometimes your childhood music experiences are the ones that stick with you for life, and if schools can’t provide these experiences at least the Proms are trying to. 

And flicking through the programme, they seem to have made a real effort to get subject specialists to do the pre-concert talks. Obviously I’m biased here because I care passionately about musicologists being able to discuss their work outside universities, and I’ll be doing a couple of the talks myself. But that’s why I was so delighted and excited to be asked, because I think the Proms provide a really wonderful platform to discuss musicological research. Check out Russian music expert Marina Frolova-Walker talking about Shostakovich for Prom 15, for example, and Stravinsky expert Jonathan Cross on Stravinsky for Prom 52.

So those are the positives. But complaint number five, on programming diversity, rings true for me. The diversity of the line-up this year is disappointing. There are very few composers of colour, or historic women composers (why not a Price or Farrenc overture instead of R. Schumann in Prom 50, for example?), and although many of the premieres are by women (hooray!) their pieces are on average shorter than those premieres by men. This feels like a massive missed opportunity. And the number of relatively unknown composers and/or lesser-known compositions by well-known composers is also low.

So a thought on what can positively be done to improve programming diversity — vote with your feet, radio, and social media. Programmers are trying to appeal to as many people as possible. Let them know that there are listeners out there who will support the music you want to see represented. Go to the proms where this music is scheduled. Tune in when they broadcast, discuss them online, generate publicity for them, tweet at the BBC to voice your support for these concerts. Tell programmers when they get it right, not just where they get it wrong.

And don’t just limit this to the Proms. If Mahler is what gets people attending concerts more broadly, then Mahler is what will be on the Proms. If there’s a concert near you with an exciting programme, go to it. When Radio 3 are broadcasting a concert with music you want to hear, tune in. Tweet at them to say MORE OF THIS PLEASE. Share music by performers and composers you want to promote, contribute to initiatives like the Re:dress project to make works by women easier to program, follow the Institute for Composer Diversity. Etc. And if you’re unimpressed with the Proms programming, let them know by taking your support elsewhere. Check out Kings Place’s ‘Venus Unwrapped’ series, for example. The Proms aren’t the only concerts happening over the summer, in London or otherwise, and the Kings Place series is a very good alternative.

The Proms are a fantastic opportunity for dialogue, and an annual opportunity for the classical music community (particularly UK-based) to check in, self-reflect, and debate what the community is and can be. In a way, I’m glad that the Proms programme sparks complaints every year. It shows that classical music listeners are engaged, have opinions, and are prepared to discuss those opinions. For me, this year’s programme has made me think about how classical music communities can be more inclusive, and what I can do to help that. It’s also reminded me how much there is to learn, and to get out of my comfort zone more regularly than I do. If the Proms do anything this year, I hope it’s that they continue to provoke discussion — and that programmers listen to these discussions. So I look forward to seeing what the Proms — and other venues — propose for 2020.

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