Tuesday, March 04, 2008
The BBC Proms - a sad history
Overgrown Path has been saying it for years - BBC Proms - a multicultural society?, BBC Proms 2006 lacks eternal feminine, Music gets in the way of running BBC Proms, and BBC Proms last night - I flee the country.
Now other people are saying it - Hodge attacks Proms: they're narrow and lack the common British values: The culture minister, Margaret Hodge, will today criticise the Prom concerts as one of many British cultural events that fail to engender new common values or attract more than a narrow unrepresentative audience.
At last people are finally waking up to the fact that the BBC Proms in their present form are outdated, irrelevant and unworthy of the BBC's marketing hype as 'the world's greatest music festival'. But government intervention will only make the situation worse, unless the cause of the problem is tackled.
History is the key to understanding the present problems. The first Promenade Concert took place in 1895, and it was twenty-seven years later that the BBC became involved and broadcast the first concert. In 1945, exactly fifty years after the first Prom, the BBC took over as sole managers. The 1970s and 1980s were an Indian summer for the Proms with William Glock, Robert Ponsonby and John Drummond in charge, Pierre Boulez and Bruno Maderna were on the podium and The Soft Machine, Imrat Kahn, and David Munrow on stage.
The problems started in John Drummond's reign and the writing was on the wall in 1990 when Last Night conductor Mark Elder was replaced at the last minute due to his dissenting views on the Gulf War. (It is interesting that Elder's reputation has grown has grown since then, while that of the Proms has declined). In 1996 Nicholas Kenyon succeeded Drummond as Proms director, starting a period when the broad music vision pioneered by Willliam Glock and others was subordinated to the marketing plans and ratings measurements of the post-John Birt BBC.
To sum up Kenyon's twelve years as Proms director, which earned him a knighthood and another top job in the music establishment, I need only repeat my prophetic words written in February 2007 - His tenure at the Proms has been marked by unimaginative planning which totally failed to reflect the diversity of today's contemporary music, and his programming repeatedly backed personal hobbyhorses at the expense of important voices.
The Proms will only start to reflect a broad musical and cultural vision when the stranglehold of BBC Radio 3 is broken. The joint position of Radio 3 controller and Proms director dates from the end of the Indian Summer in 1987 when John Drummond was appointed to both positions. Like Nicholas Kenyon, his successor Roger Wright now holds both positions. The joint responsibilities create a disastrous conflict of interests in which the 'day job' of network controller invariably takes precedence over the concerts. So everything else is subservient to the broadcast schedule, including the music and timings.
To start the rejuvenation of the Proms the positions of Proms director and Radio 3 controller must be separated and 'Chinese walls' built between the broadcasts and the concerts. Birtian internal cross-charging should be instigated, with the Proms cost centre charged for the million of pounds of free BBC Radio 3 promotion it benefits from. This free promotional air time makes it very difficult to promote competitive, and broader, festivals in London during the Proms season. Can anyone really support a position where the BBC control the concerts, the promotional medium, the resident orchestra, the radio and TV coverage, the new music commissioning budget and more?
That word more is an interesting one. With a few exceptions a government minister and a music blog have been the sole critics of the Proms' tunnel vision. Margaret Hodge's criticism is reported in the Guardian; surely that bastion of liberal journalism would be one of the concert series' most vocal critics? Well, the Guardian's chief music critic Tom Service is high profile and a smart guy. But he is also a BBC Radio 3 presenter, writes for BBC Music Magazine and contributed a chapter to the book seen in my header image. The Proms - A New History is a recent publication and the consultant editor is none other than Nicholas Kenyon.
And yes, I've been an enthusiastic Promenader from the 1970s to the present day and I'm even linked from the BBC Proms website.
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