It is quality and not size of audience that is important

In a Telegraph article about the 2017 BBC Proms the concert series' director David Pickard raises hopes for an possible important change in direction. Discussing the move away from Proms themed to TV shows, Pickard observes that "what we need to be thinking of is nurturing a long-term audience for classical music". This statement may be blindingly obvious, but it is important for two reasons. First, it is a welcome sign that somebody at the BBC has finally realised what many of us have known for years, that dumbing down classical music does not build a long-term audience. The second reason why his observation is important is because it is a much-needed admission that quality and not quantity of audience is what matters.

In the past the spin-masters at the BBC have been eager to point out the numbers of first-time concertgoers at the Proms. For instance the number of 33,000 first-time concertgoers was trumpeted for the 2014 Proms season; but drilling down below that headline figure painted a very different picture. From data in the public domain, we know that the Proms audience expressed as a percentage of venue capacity dropped from 93% in the 2013 season to 88% in 2014. This means that the total attendance fell by 17,000, despite 33,000 Proms neophytes swelling the numbers. So in 2014 the Proms gained 33,000 first time ticket purchasers, but lost 50,000 of its existing audience, resulting in a net loss of 17,000 concertgoers. What matters is the net change in audience size - newcomers less non-returners; because that determines the size of the long-term audience. The figures I have cited show that despite what superficially looks like an impressive number of first-time attendees wooed by events like TV-themed Proms, the total audience size declined. That decline was due to a mix of two factors: one was that many first-time concertgoers attracted by untypical concert fare did not return, the second was the vitally important but ignored point that the loyal core audience is also shrinking.

David Pickard has at least realised that the new marginal audience is not coming back. But he and a lot of other people involved in concert planning also need to take on board that the core audience - which includes me - is becoming very reluctant to brave the contemporary concert ambiance; an ambiance that is being created largely by misguided efforts to attract the new marginal audience. In a 2015 piece titled 'What price classical music's new audience?' I reported here how for me a concert in France was marred by audience members eating a picnic, applauding during (not between) Mahler's settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and, of course, using their mobile phones. Elsewhere I lamented how a performance at the Fez Sufi Culture Festival was ruined by the continuous use of camera-phones, and this weekend my wife email from Toronto lamenting how an Indian music recital was marred by a concertgoer texting and checking emails and Facebook.

The inflammatory subject of applause between movements makes an interesting case study. We are told that classical music must drop its silly conventions, and we are also told that silence between movements is one of those dispensable silly conventions. There is some historical justification for this argument, as going back many years it was, apparently, customary, for an audience to express its appreciation of particularly meritorious playing at the end of a movement. But in the age of the new marginal audience, applause between movements has in a remarkably short time become another silly convention. It is no longer an expression of praise for artistic excellence, because, dare I say it, many of those applauding between movements do not yet have the experience to recognise artistic excellence. Applause between movements is now something that the audience does, simply because the new silly convention says they should do it. Just one example was the apologetic dribbles of applause - is this where we should applaud? - between the movements of Tasmin Little's performance of Walton's Violin Concerto in Hull on BBC Radio 3 last week. (I emphasise that my criticism is of the applause habit and not Tasmin's artistic excellence!) The silly convention of dribbles of applause between movements started at the Proms but is now a global problem: we were subjected to it during a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in Rabat, Morocco recently.

If David Pickard wants to know why a core audience member like me has only attended one Prom in recent years - Alwyn and RVW in 2014 - and will not be buying any tickets for the 2017 season, I suggest he listens to the archive recording seen in my header graphic, which is a transfer of BBC broadcasts of two concerts. (I will refrain from using the BBC Radio 3 presenter's ghastly terminology of 'live concerts' as I have never yet attended a concert where the musicians on the platform are dead). Brahms' Third Symphony was recorded at a Prom in 1977 and Elgar's First at a 1976 Prom. On the transfers the hall ambiance has been left between the movements. Not only are there no dribbles of inter-movement applause, there is also none of the tubercular between-movement coughing that punctuates today's performances despite greatly improved health standards. Moreover the music itself is heard in rapturous silence, again without the intrusive noises of today's audiences. And if anybody tries to dismiss the background silence in those two concerts as lucky flukes, I refer them to other BBC concert recordings from the past, all of which lack audience participation; for example another Elgar 1, this time Sir John Barbirolli's painfully slow valedictory 1970 performance in the unforgiving acoustic of St Nicholas' Chapel, King's Lynn, and Bruno Maderna's Mahler Nine recorded in the Festival Hall in 1971.

It is quality and not size of audience that is important to nurturing a long-term audience for classical music. David Pickard's candid views suggest that there is some light at the end of the dumbed-down corridor. Let's hope that it is not a train full of audience-chasing BBC senior executives coming the other way.

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