Monday, August 21, 2017

Midnight's music


Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight’s Children portrays India’s tumultuous journey to Partition and beyond, and the children of the title are those born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 - the precise moment of Indian independence. It can be argued that the impact of Partition on contemporary Britain is at least equal to that of the Russian Revolution. But, despite this, the centenary of the Russian Revolution takes precedence over the 70th anniversary of Partition in the 2017 BBC Proms season. So there is a veritable glut of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, while works with links to the Indian subcontinent such as Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony, Gustav Holst's Savitri and Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream, John Foulds' Song of Ram Dass and Three Mantras, and John Tavener's Requiem are conspicuously absent.

But all is not quite lost. There are two Proms featuring music from the subcontinent; the New Age elevator music of the Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass collaboration Passages which was performed on August 15, and a much more chewy concert of music from the Indian Hindustani and Carnatic traditions together with Sufi music from Pakistan - see photo above - on August 25. That is the good news. The bad news is that both concerts are in the insomniac slot, with the August 25 concert starting at 10.15pm and ending at half past midnight.

Now late night Proms are not a new feature: for example the 1972 Proms performance of Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning which featured in yesterday's post started at 9.45pm. But a lot has changed in the four decades since then. Supposedly we live in more inclusive, more cosmopolitan and more multicultural times. So why is any music that is not in the mainstream Western tradition immediately consigned to the graveyard shift?

Preceding the Indian/Pakistani concert are Riccardo Chailly and La Scala Philharmonic playing at 6.30pm a distinctly pedestrian but definitely Western programme of Brahms' Violin Concerto and Respighi's Pines and Fountains of Rome. Of course, it is all about the box office. Brahms, Respighi and Chailly will put a lot more bums on seats than Canartic music. But the maths are not quite that simple: the fee for Chailly, soloist Leonidas Kavakos and the La Scala band is many times greater than that for ten little-known musicians from the subcontinent. So some empty seats for an Eastern music concert in the main evening slot would not bankrupt the BBC, which enjoys a legally protected annual license fee income of £3.7 billion. But if we leave that inconvenient truth aside, is the purpose of the BBC Proms or any other concert series simply to maximise ticket sales?

Consigning this or any other non-mainstream music to the late night slot is a huge missed opportunity. A concert of Indian and Pakistani music spitting its audience out into central London at half-past midnight will only appeal to the committed cognoscenti. The same concert starting at 7.30pm or even in the afternoon will tempt people to try the unfamiliar. And it is not simply a case of Sufi versus Respighi. There is little overlap between the audiences and the Albert Hall is the worst possible venue for intimate devotional music. The Eastern musicians could have played at the same time as the big hitters from Italy, but in a more suitable venue such as the smaller Cadogan Hall which is already used for chamber music Proms.

This is not just about two concerts of Indian and Pakistani music. It is about something much bigger. For years the BBC Proms have been no more than a box ticking exercise. Tick the Mahler box, tick the manufactured controversy box, tick the new music box, tick the Daniel Barenboim box, tick the Shostakovich box, tick the Simon Rattle box, and, above all, tick the cultural Health and Safety box. Integral to ticking the cultural Health and Safety box has been the establishment of a 10.00pm 'watershed', whereby challenging music has to be buddied up with an audience-friendly warhorse to be included in a pre-watershed concert - e.g. Anders Hillborg's Sirens buddied with Rimsky's conveniently Russian but not revolutionary Scherezade in a 7.30pm concert. This cultural apartheid means it is OK to break with the Proms convention of mainstream classical before the 10.00pm watershed with 'safe' innovations such as Oklohoma!. But anything suggesting that there is more to life than Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin' - whether Sufi or contemporary Western music - is marginalised in the late night ghetto.

For too long the Proms have been on auto pilot flying towards destination maximum audience. Root and branch reform is needed to disengage the auto pilot. The budget for the Proms is around £10 million of which two-thirds is guaranteed from the BBC license fee and is therefore independent of ticket sales. With that kind of fiscal safety net in place surely some comfort zone-challenging programmes could be scheduled in the 7.30pm slots in addition to the mandatory Mahler symphonies and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. But let's finish on a positive note. For those who like me do not consider the Circle Line at half-past-midnight to be a consciousness-enhancing experience, a recording of the Indian and Sufi music Prom is being shown on BBC Four TV on Sept. 2.

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