Wednesday, June 06, 2007

How green was my concert?


As the G8 leaders discuss a global target for reductions in greenhouse gases in Heiligendamm perhaps it's time to ask how green was my concert? This year's BBC Proms features the premiere of Rachel Portman's The Water Diviner's Tale. As her publisher says, Portman is "known for her incredibly lush movie scores", and for writing the score for the film that launched Hugh Grant's career. If we forgive her that, the The Water Diviner’s Tale is billed as "a fresh and innovative production exploring the hot issue of climate change." Great to see the BBC putting climate change on the classical music agenda. But shouldn't we be more concerned about the greenhouse gases that are produced by a season like the 2007 BBC Proms?

Here are the ensembles that will be flying, or bussing into London this summer for the eight week BBC Proms season, with their points of departure in bold. Chorus and Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome, Bach Collegium Japan, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, BBC Philharmonic (Manchester) and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (Norway), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Black Dyke Mills Band (Bradford), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia (Cambridge), Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble (South Africa), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Compagnie Roussat-Lubek (Paris), Ensemble Sequentia (Germany), European Union Youth Orchestra, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (Germany), Grimethorpe Colliery Band (Yorkshire), Hallé Orchestra (Manchester), Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, Henschel Quartet (Germany), Lahti Symphony Orchestra (Finland), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre–Grenoble (France), Lucerne Festival Orchestra (Switzerland), Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Berlin), National Youth Choir of Wales, Orchestre National de France, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Royal Northern College of Music (Manchester), San Francisco Symphony, Scottish Ensemble, Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Tanglewood Festival Chorus (Boston), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Plus there is the roster of international soloists and conductors who will be flying in separately.

On An Overgrown Path has always stressed the importance of an international and inclusive approach to music making. But this orgy of travel is counterproductive, both in terms of environmental impact and music making. Of the six ensembles travelling to London from outside Europe, only two (Boston and San Francisco Symphony) are performing more than one concert. Of the eighteen European ensembles only two (Bavarian Radio Symphony and Vienna Philharmonic) are playing more than one concert.

Just who is this serving? I've already written here, and here, about the routine performances that result from "these London today, Germany tomorrow" tours by the 'brand name' orchestras. As an example, in just two weeks the Boston Symphony are crossing the Atlantic twice, and performing in seven cities in four European cities. That kind of frantic musical chairs isn't doing audiences, the musicians or the environment any favours. But it is great for the income of music agents who book these whirlwind itineraries, and its great for the BBC who are targetting an international audience in their strategy of global digital domination.

There are constructive answers. The BBC needs to re-establish its own BBC Symphony Orchestra as the core Proms ensemble. This year the BBCSO is playing in just twelve of the seventy-two concerts (that is only five more than the Manchester based BBC Philharmonic), and just four of the BBC Symphony dates are being conducted by its absentee chief conductor Jiří Bĕlohlávek. Of the four concerts Bĕlohlávek conducts, one is Beethoven 9 (astonishingly the first of two in the season), one is Mahler 1 (albeit with a Thea Musgrave premiere), and one is the Last Night. Where is the authority and diversity that Pierre Boulez and Colin Davis established when they headed the BBC Symphony? I suspect the BBC management no longer considers the BBC Symphony to be 'box office' for their global and digital markets.

We, of course, still need to welcome international ensembles to London. But let's welcome fewer, and let's establish longer term residencies where the musicians can really get the measure of the difficult Albert Hall acoustics and its idiosyncratic audience. And let's make the programmes enterprising, instead of yet another Brahms 1 (Boston Symphony Prom 71 - with a token nine minutes of Elliott Carter, and with misspelling of Elliott Carter on the composer index page), Shostakovich 5 (San Francisco Symphony Prom 64 with a token nineteen minutes of Ives), and Beethoven 9 (Bavarian Radio Symphony Prom 62 - with a decent thirty minutes of Honegger).

Global warming is forcing everyone to rethink the way they live. Why not the classical music community?

Now read how Mahler's music sent an important environmental message to the German parliament.
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