Monday 22 April 2019

Prom-posity - or "Say better"

Last week brought the announcement of the new Proms season for summer 2019 - and with it, the usual range of reactions from cheers to sneers. However, English National Opera (ENO) - for better or worse - chose the same day to announce that its artistic director, Daniel Kramer, would be stepping down from the role after a relatively brief three-year tenure.

Certainly, this led to something of a negative weighting to the musical social media I tend to frequent. Lewis Carroll may have written about 'hunting the snark', but I tell you, a morning on Twitter and he'd have had more of it than he could shake a stick at.

This is probably easier to explain on the ENO side, because there is simply a corner of commentary (not universal, by any means, but vocal) that seizes every opportunity to have a go at the company. I've written on this before, so won't go on at (*ahem* great) length here, but the skewed vision can be wearing. I recall a recent review saying how ENO needed to 'restore its credibility' after one show the writer particularly hated; or a current piece casually describing ENO as recently having 'more than its fair share of turkeys' as if this was fact. All those turkeys that were nominated for the Olivier Awards this year, presumably.

I have no particular brief for - or beef with - DK himself. I've enjoyed most of the productions at ENO during his era, but not all without some reservations. The point about ENO is that, in my opinion, they have one of the best ensembles - chorus and orchestra - you could ask for; yet recognition of their talent suffers because of this view of the company. Review space is used up with doomy pronouncements on ENO boardroom attitudes, at the expense of writing about the work. (As far as I can tell, this is largely absent from writing in other music genres. No rock writer would spend word count reviewing an album to have a moan about the record label, or file a live gig review and moan about the venue. And god knows, some of those are TERRIBLE.)

But - as if magically transformed back to the playground - the good riddances and told-you-sos echoed around classical music land to the point where I felt like going off for a bit to bake some conkers in the oven. And, of course, the Proms didn't escape either, with the new season described as 'boring', 'absurd parody', 'little evidence of real enterprise'... and one tweet in particular, shown in my screen capture below, provoked me to genuine anger:

Perhaps the most annoying thing about this statement is that the initial point is clearly well worth making: of course the Proms should be trying to widen its scope and programme with greater diversity. Always. (I happen not to think the reasons shown are why people think classical music is elitist - I believe that's in fact a hugely-nuanced, multi-faceted issue based on a whole range of factors, in which the media plays a huge part. But that's too big a subject for this post, let alone a tweet.)

What I don't like here is the tone. Does anyone? Does anyone read this and think: Bravo! Well put. That'll teach those stuck-in-the-mud, un-woke, dusty old Prom organisers? That'll open a dialogue. Well, of course it won't open a dialogue, because why would you engage with someone who speaks to you like this? And the writer doesn't actually want a conversation, anyway - they just want the Proms to 'do better'. If only the Proms had thought of this.

This 'tone' I'm speaking of has, of course, become legitimised in our social and political discourse - it is apparently perfectly all right to speak in as ill-mannered or high-handed a way as you like to anyone, if 'right' is on your side (or even if it isn't). "Do better" - creeping through the internet like the equally shudder-inducing "Just sayin'" or "Let that sink in" - is now common shorthand for someone who thinks that with a tap on the 'send' button, whoever's on the receiving end should just bow immediately to their 'rightness', no questions asked. Well, your 'righteous' is my 'self-righteous'. Say better.

Of course, over a few days, a certain equilibrium was established, and there are clearly lots of people who are genuinely thrilled and excited about the Proms too, which is great to see. But having some folk say lovely things about the season while others carry on sniping is not quite the 'balance' I'm looking for. It's fine to be thrilled. It's fine to be disappointed. But what do we all do next?

When people are negative on the internet, it's overwhelmingly in as pointed, cutting and hurtful a way as possible. This is, presumably, a result of technological 'advances': the troll is a recent phenomenon. Ranters can get away with more because they can still be relatively anonymous, they react more in anger because there's an instant channel for their wrath, and things like word count (on Twitter, say) encourage more terse, curt modes of expression. (It's difficult to imagine, a century or two ago, someone taking up their quill and sending their victim a letter to read about a week later, just saying - or even "just sayin'" - "Your mum".)

(A troll, yesterday.)

The rude tweeter I've singled out here is almost certainly convinced they're on the side of the angels. But I find it difficult to see the issues they've focused on in isolation. To a punter like me, the Proms feels like an almost impossible achievement, every year. 80+ concerts in eight weeks, involving many of the finest classical musicians from around the world. It includes new commissions and premieres. Is it not the case that pulling any part of this Herculean task together depends, among other things, on the existing and/or new repertoire and busy schedules of composers, conductors, soloists, orchestras... and that's just the 'live' element. On top of that, as part of its education/outreach goals, there are all the Proms talks, programme writing and interviews to commission and arrange. BBC Radio 3 broadcasts every Prom live (and BBC4 is televising 24 of them this year), meaning that every single concert will be available on demand for a month on the BBC Sounds app (that's iPlayer Radio in old money).

Yet pull it together they do, and like many artistic enterprises, we rather take it for granted. There are the people working very hard behind the scenes to make the Proms happen and run like clockwork year in year out... and there are people who wait for a year, take a quick look at the season announcement, and write "Do better". Great effort, second group. See you next year.

In the meantime, the Proms is of course, both a commercial and artistic endeavour, and it wants our money as well as our support. I do think the Proms is - and should be - open to criticism and comment, but this doesn't just need to be polite: it also needs to be engaging and useful. For example, the diversity issue is a crucial one, but waiting for the programme to be announced each year and saying 'not diverse enough' will only have a limited effect.

We can say one thing for sure at the outset: there will never be a perfect Proms season. It won't even come close. There is no way, for example, that it can nail every diversity angle simultaneously. Which groups would you aim to represent and to what extent? Imagine a season where they manage to get a perfect balance between male/female composers, performers and commissions. Would the balance also be right that year between white/people of colour? Between straight/non-straight? Between challenging contemporary music and old, reliable, hall-filling warhorses? Between classical and non-classical?

This is why the 'annual announcement to immediate reaction' cycle is so fruitless. I'm not trying to 'defend' an overwhelmingly male (or overwhelmingly anything) Proms season. What I want is an identifiable way forward that doesn't involve snotty dismissiveness in the media (social or print).

I realise this is 'pie in the sky' stuff, but I'd like to see two fundamental changes to the whole Proms approach... *stares dreamily into middle distance*:
  • Become an all-year round enterprise. At the moment, a few repeats aside, it's either FULL-ON PROMERAMA or no Proms at all. The actual festival would stay put, but there’s more to it than that. The massive summer season brings with it a weekly TV programme, 'Proms Extra', as well as all the accompanying coverage in the classical music press etc. But I've written before that if there's an appetite for a classical TV show while the Proms are on, it will still be there when the Proms are off and people are starved of the gigs themselves. (See my post here. Katie Derham even replied to say she'd be up for it!) The recent launch of Scala Radio further suggests that there is a public out there willing to be turned onto classical music. The show would be able to feature classical music in other venues, range round the country to avoid the festival's own 'London-centrism', broadcast repeats and highlights and generally keep the brand alive throughout the year. Equally, it could broadcast documentary-style commentary about organising the festival each year, and even gather ideas and feedback for concerts - which leads me to...
  • Go 'public'. I realise that last bit sounds mad. It would certainly need some careful management. You wouldn't ask 'just anyone' to programme a Prom any more than you'd ask them to look after your kids or fix your car. But this is what I'm driving at: it's generally accepted that the classical music world suffers throughout from this lack of diversity and accessibility, but - rightly or wrongly - we seem to be looking to the Proms, with their sheer size and scope, and BBC-affiliated service remit, to make the first move; to light the torch and lead the way out of this mess. With that in mind, I do wonder if the process could be opened up. For example, I'd like to see or hear TV or radio snippets where someone involved in the Proms talks about the difficulty - if any - of programming significant numbers of female composers, say, or giving enough representation to wider communities or genres. A lay punter like me would want to know - are they simply not well enough known? Are you genuinely worried the tickets wouldn't sell? Are the relevant scores particularly rare or expensive? Do you get resistance from orchestras / conductors to tackle this repertoire? etc. Some of you reading this will think these questions na├»ve or ridiculous, and the chances are that's because you happen to already know the answers. It doesn't mean the answers are obvious. Or wouldn't it be great if the interviewer could bring up, say, a lack of female conductors, and the Proms spokesperson could come back immediately with a response like: 'Well, x is booked in 2020, so we're in her diary for 2021' - or how ever many years a typical lead-time might be - I suspect it's often longer. And yes, I know we wouldn't be talking about just one conductor either. Could lifting the veil be the answer? - it might take the Proms ten years or more to get to a significantly 'diverse' season to satisfy most people and this would be the organisers' chance to illustrate the kind of issues that arise, while keeping the publicity machine going. And I don't mean it should only function as a kind of 'Proms Police'. From our end, it would give the public an opportunity to genuinely engage and understand a festival that is designed to be as inclusive as it's possible to be. You would lose that marketing 'hit' - season announcement day - but I think the gains would outstrip the loss of impact.
If the Proms are going to celebrate difference successfully, they need to be different.


Three of my favourite fellow bloggers wrote what I feel were very thoughtful, fair-minded and typically individual pieces about the Proms season. As with their best writing, you learn as much about the authors as you do the concerts - please have a read and keep an eye on their work.
  • Frances Wilson (the Cross Eyed Pianist blog) brilliantly illuminating the seemingly impossible - and paradoxical - task for Proms HQ of finding new audiences for classical music through programming other genres;
  • Jon Jacob (the Thoroughly Good blog), unflinchingly honest as ever about his own attitudes and reactions, expressing so clearly how a grounding or expertise in classical music can impact your view on what the Proms does, or should do.
  • Leah Broad (the, er, Leah Broad blog!), providing exactly the kind of careful analysis and practical viewpoint that begins to answer some of my questions - and more.

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