Saturday, 19 September 2020

Promentum!

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.

This was written and first posted in the run-up to the Last Night of the Proms. A couple of sentences have therefore aged a little already, but I have left the piece as it was - after all, it is mainly about the future.

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Many of you reading this will be aware that the pandemically-adjusted 2020 Proms season has just shifted up a gear. Since mid-July, the BBC has raided its archives and broadcast selected performances from past years. Now, however, there is an all-too-brief fortnight of live performances from an audience-free Royal Albert Hall, available on various platforms for remote viewers and listeners.

The First Night concert had the effect you might expect, the euphoria of hearing the live orchestra and singers tempered by the poignancy of their loneliness in the space: uplifting and unsettling all at once. It would be a good time – and a good example, perhaps – to focus the public’s attention on the ongoing impact this surreal state of affairs is having on the industry as the help so many artists need remains elusive.

So it was rather dispiriting to find that the ‘Proms conversation’ seemed to be completely overwhelmed by the ‘Rule Britannia’/’Land of Hope and Glory’ controversy.

Full disclosure: I wrote a piece some time ago musing that the Last Night of the Proms is not quite the jingoistic rave-up it’s often presented as. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the Hall myself on a Last Night, and its intentions felt to me rather more multi-national and inclusive, given the global reach of the flags waved in the hall, as well as the performers on stage. And while Elgar’s music commands respect, the majority of the patriotic home-straight sequence is shot through with irony and satire, the Prommers sending up the old warhorses – and themselves – gamely and reliably.


For me the issue remains fascinatingly knotty. Many keenly anticipate, for example, finding out exactly how the star performer will choose to tackle ‘Rule Britannia’. The recent instances that come immediately to my mind are Juan Diego Florez and Jamie Barton, both subverting the song to make witty, memorable and politically-charged points. One could argue that leaving in the song provides a platform in this way, while shining a light on our own darker historical moments without erasure. This platform would disappear along with ‘Rule Britannia’. But then, would removing the song not remove the need for the platform? And so, endlessly, on.

But the world has changed in recent years, and perhaps certain rituals – however ‘fascinating’ I might find them – should change with it. As someone who must surely have close to maximum privilege, I can afford to be completely indifferent to ‘Rule Britannia’, and my opinion could not matter less. If any Last Night content causes misunderstanding or pain; forms a barrier to communication and goodwill; divides rather than unites – then it’s ripe for re-examination and possible renewal or removal. It’s not an issue of free speech or censorship – rather one of awareness and compassion.

And surely any decision is fluid: lack of nuance is so rife these days that many seem to think that all views are unchangeable and all decisions are irreversible – but this issue will take as much re-thinking as you want to throw at it. I understand this year the intention is to perform ‘Rule’ and ‘Land’ with orchestra only. [EDIT: In the event, they were sung in ensemble.] In future, perhaps the key soloist at the Last Night could decide whether they want to perform ‘Rule’, meaning it would be there some years and not others? Perhaps they could bring a treasured song from their own country? Or perhaps the entire programme of the Last Night could and should be completely different every year anyway? – see below.

Whatever the rights/wrongs or pros/cons of the pieces themselves, there’s another, underlying problem that might be more difficult to solve: the image this gives the Proms. For plenty of casual observers, ‘the Proms’ are the flag-waving whoop-a-thons of the Last Night’s final section. They’re not necessarily aware of the music immediately before that. They don’t spot that the major BBC1 broadcast is only part 2 of the concert – the first half, which contains the full range and variety of the Last Night programming and will feature the stars of the show Doing Their Actual Thing, is still shown but tucked away on another channel. They will not fully appreciate – despite the name – that by the time you get to the Last Night, there have already been around 75 concerts (uniquely accessible in terms of the affordable standing tickets and 100% radio broadcast) with everyone involved playing and listening to music like normal people.

This gives me a lot of sympathy with those who believe the entire Last Night could be revamped. I’m drawn to the non-political angle suggesting that one of the world’s most prestigious music festivals shouldn’t really end in a knees-up, and that a totally different kind of concert could take its place.

But inevitably, politics isn’t far away. We know that there are branches of our society who defend ‘Rule Britannia’ (without really knowing what the words mean, or why it is sung at the Proms, or even what the Proms actually are), in the same way they defend Brexit, live and breathe racism and bigotry, and vote for a Government that appears content to let the arts industry collapse. One wonders how they will hear their beloved anthem in future, with no singers, players or venues.

I’m minded to think that the creative solutions we need will come from the creative minds that have been so badly impacted. Everyone has necessarily had to manage their own reaction to lockdown. But many artists, musicians and organisations have not just found ways to keep performing, but developed and innovated new approaches to doing so.


The Momentum initiative is one of these heartening new ideas. Created by the acclaimed soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan, Momentum is a recently-launched – but already vast – network of established artists in the classical music industry who have all committed to bring an emerging artist ‘on board’ for at least one of their engagements next season. The leading artist is responsible for identifying their beneficiary. The emerging artist benefits from the learning/mentoring on offer, and receives payment (often this will be part of the leading artist’s fee).

For me, the elegance of this idea is in its self-sustaining, people-focused yet realistic approach. Plenty of partner organisations (venue and orchestras) have signed up to the model. But the concept itself is rooted in the artistic community nourishing its own support system: it preserves quality, because the emerging artist must already be professional (there’s no ‘anyone can apply’ aspect); and it doesn’t rely on any official, external body’s approval, or (thank God) willingness to fund it.

That said, I would love to see it go further. Once Momentum really gains… well, you know… then we could see venues transform their entire seasons. Imagine the range of programming we might see at somewhere like Wigmore Hall, which already has form for showcasing new talent. Could this lead to a commitment from, say, the BBC to broadcast the emerging artists (sessions on BBC Radio 3’s ‘In Tune’, for example)? Could an enterprising record label jump on board with a pledge to release performances by the participants on ‘Momentum’ CDs or downloads, which could be compilations, EPs or full-blown albums accordingly depending on the repertoire available – or performable – at the time?

I often wish classical music would borrow a bit of rock music’s aggression to get it in front of the public (and Momentum has a strong ‘taking a protégé / support band under your wing’ vibe about it).
  • I’ve asked the question before: why can we not have a regular classical music TV show? The answers ‘it’ll cost money / no-one will watch it’ are inadequate, because the BBC believe (rightly) there is a home audience for the Proms for the entire season, including a magazine show, which disappears when the Proms end. But the audience – now Prom-less – are still there! The programme could feature sessions (like a classical ‘Later’) or profiles, look at new releases, and so on.
  • It would be great to see any performers (who are able to) explore outlets for their music that don’t necessarily rely on record companies and certainly not on streaming. Bandcamp is a key contender here – if you are a solo instrumentalist, art song duo, small band – whatever works – and you can record your music to a level you’re comfortable with, please consider or investigate releasing it yourself as a download. (Lisette Oropesa is a high-profile example.)
  • I realise that for some, this might mean certain compromises – available technology, sound quality, performance acoustic – but, while I love gorgeously-recorded CDs as much as anyone, I also think perfection is a bit of a cult. In rock, folk or jazz, people become accustomed to – and happily seek out – something a little more rough and ready (the popularity of bands releasing demos, alternate takes and live albums testifies to this). It’s no coincidence that fans have been overjoyed to hear Angela Hewitt or Igor Levit simply film their hands at their home piano, or watch multiple-view choirs singing ‘together’ but remotely. It’s the music we need to hear, with the added bonus of taking us closer to our favourite artists’ processes. It doesn’t ‘replace’ live performance (as lockdown has shown us), but it can complement it, once lockdown is a memory. The idea that classical music needs to be ‘pristine’ is something imposed upon it, not innate.
More of this sort of thing. Let’s not give people an excuse to box up classical music as something that hides behind closed doors, apart from a 20-minute window of hip-hip-hooray in early Autumn. It’s open, inclusive, vibrant, changing, challenging, in-your-face, exciting, soothing, life-affirming – thanks to the imaginations, attitudes and actions of those who bring it to life. And we need to keep talking about them.

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