Saturday, April 22, 2017
How many Mahlers does it take to fill the Albert Hall?
According to the planners of the 2017 BBC Proms, it takes five Mahler symphonies to fill the Albert Hall. In a year when there is not the usual excuse for overkill of an anniversary, half the composer's symphonic output is featured in one Proms season, with three of the symphonies played in a five day period. The five symphonies include the First; this has been performed thirteen times at the Proms since the turn of the century, with this year's performance the fourth in four years. That other perennial excuse of planners that a warhorse coupled with a 'difficult' work broadens audience tastes also doesn't apply. Two of the Mahler symphonies have no coupling, Haydn, Schubert and Dvořák are coupled to the other three, and the only paired contemporary work is a seven minute amuse bouche from John Adams.
That header graphic is a pencil sketch of Sir Malcolm Arnold by his son. Sir Malcolm wrote symphonies that surely would appeal to today's Mahler-satiated audiences, but, predictably, none of them are performed at the 2017 Proms. In a 1971 Guardian article Malcolm Arnold accused critics of having preconceived and narrow views which forced promoters to programme works by a limited range of composers, and ended by deploying an unfortunate analogy to declare: "Let us say down, down, down with the music critics before they make our music the arid and joyless music of the concentration camp".
In a similarly thoughtful but savage attack on fellow harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani in the current Van magazine*, Andreas Staier also directs his ire at critics, saying: "The press is at fault here too. In none of the interviews [with Mahan Esfahani] I cited was a single critical follow-up question asked. And the media has such a short attention span that contradictory and inconsistent statements are ignored even if they occur within just weeks of one other." Andreas Staier is right to criticise, but chooses the wrong target. Music critics now have little influence except as opinion formers on social media, and that is where the problem lies. The Mahler glut and Mhan Esfahani's attention-seeking antics are products of the so-called wisdom of crowds. When that great Proms planner William Glock was asked what he wanted to offer audiences, he replied "What they will like tomorrow". Five Mahler symphonies at the 2017 Proms is yet another illustration of how the wisdom of crowds and social media is a flawed tool for concert planners, because it only tells them what audiences like today.
* My thanks go to Andrew Morris' Devil's Trill blog for drawing attention to the Andreas Staier article. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.