The Proms: All white on the night

This year's Proms programme may be the most wide-ranging yet - so why does it fail to attract a more diverse audience?
Click to follow

It's almost an achievement, if a perverse one, to have audiences of up to 3,000 every night for two months and for those audiences to feature so few black faces that they stand out like ornaments.

The BBC Proms is doing nothing wrong; it could hardly be doing more right. Constantly extending its programming to reach new listeners – this year Goldie and Bollywood joined Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim – it charges £5 for the best view; broadcasts all of the concerts on the radio and many on the television; allows picnicking up in the arena and strolling about; and sends in musicians, in droves, into schools and communities to introduce young people to the orchestra.

So why are Londoners not pouring in, in all their shapes, colours and sizes? Are we just not really that into classical music – Mahler and Stravinsky, after all, struggle to compete with Kanye West and Girls Aloud – or is it that someone, somewhere along the way, decided that music-making – the serious craft of instrument tuition – wasn't really important enough to be made available to our children?

"There is an element of that," says Boris Johnson's cultural advisor, Munira Mirza, who believes that a failing in musical education has left Londoners with no classical appetite. "With the dismantling of the Inner London Education Authority in the '80s, music education in London schools has significantly declined; for all its faults it had a very comprehensive music education provision. Boroughs have no statutory responsibility for music in schools, so you get very patchy provisions now."

It is staggering to think that there has been no absolute rule that a state school has instruments and tuition available to its pupils; that if you live in East London you are provided for by the brilliant outreach department of the London Symphony Orchestra's "Discovery" arm – who work alongside neighbouring schools to introduce the orchestra to children – but if you don't happen to have a leading orchestra in your patch, you'll be lucky if your child gets to sing in assembly.

But it's not just a failing in the education system. At every level, audiences are being left to fend – find, rather – for themselves, and when it comes to classical music, well why would you do that? Put on a Brahms Mass when you come in from school, instead of turning on the TV? Unlikely.

"To get more black and Asian audiences into our concert halls we need to get more black players in the orchestras," says Southbank Centre music programmer, Marshall Marcus. "For a new audience the starting point is to see a mirror of themselves on the stage."

This worked spectacularly well on Sunday when a freak experiment in programming – the Proms went to Bollywood – delivered a largely British/Asian crowd (though this audience most definitely did not return the following night for Ravel's Bolero). But the point is that when audiences think they can see/hear something that speaks directly to themselves – without needing help to see the relationship – they are through the door.

It is how the National Theatre has turned from a mainly white institution, in terms of audiences, to an increasingly London-looking one, according to one of their regularly commissioned playwrights, Kwame Kwei-Armah. "The first play I had on was in 2003 and I would say that 10 to 12 per cent of the audience was black. For my next play there was around 40 per cent. And, for last year's Statement of Regret, 60 per cent of the audience was black."

Theatre has "gone to battle with itself", offers Kwei-Armah, first in the 1950s and again now. It is saying, to those that wish the stage to present "high" art, that no, it will deliver popular art – which means dramas and lives that appeal to a wide and cross-class/race range. The root of this intention was presented to Kwei-Armah by the National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner.

"When Nick took over, he said to me: 'I want the interlocking communities of Britain each to feel that this is their artistic home'. That's a very important statement to make, and he's backed it up with work, not just committing to plays depicting black British experiences but Asian and working ones too."

Declaring an intent to make an institution belong to all is great, but not every venue will have the funding, or, indeed, the appetite to follow suit; when one criticises programmers for putting on conservative repertoire, one has to recognise that they do so because these shows sell – it is often we, the audience, who demand a certain type of production.

It is also up to the "new face", previously left beyond the bounds of arts institutions, to find a way of connecting. As Kwei-Armah says, "It's a dual process – communities, particularly black communities, have to really claim the institutions of this country as their own, even though sometimes walking into them can feel very alien – much like walking into an all-black environment for a white person can feel alienating. The community has to embrace the newness of walking into environments that sometimes frighten you and make you feel inferior. For me, I happen to believe very strongly, particularly as a 40 per cent tax payer, that every institution belongs to me, so I am entitled to be there. But it does take a relatively robust mindset to feel comfortable in an environment that, historically, you would have had very little involvement in."

On entering a concert hall – though I want to suggest that this is much less the case for the Proms, being the large, free-for-all party that it is – the possibility of being alienated and intimidated is even greater. This is partly because there is less hand-holding and partly because there can be an etiquette and atmosphere that may appear club-like to those not in the know; to someone that starts to cheer wildly after a first movement, for instance, turning around to see a few hundred people uncomfortably digesting this too-free form of expression.

Mainly, with classical music, there is also the problem that, unlike in the theatre, new work from minority groups cannot be quickly or easily commissioned. Once it is commissioned, it cannot then be put on the stage within eight weeks on a relatively low budget; a 45-piece orchestra, for example, takes a giant spend and these one-off commissions cannot be delivered regularly enough to genuinely attract a new community that can begin a loyal relationship with the orchestra or concert hall. Where are the mirrors then? Absent.

Even more problematic is that the concert-going audience, much more so than film-goers or theatre-goers, are reluctant to steer off a happily trodden path – anything other than Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Elgar, Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Wagner, basically (who collectively wrote enough to keep an orchestra in season for at least six years); these are all old white men who died between 70 and 320 years ago so, again, not offering much by way of mirrors.

But, and here is the thing, in a similar way to how a young Indian writer's new play might pull in a load of new faces who will then choose to book the Shakespeare play that opens the following week, this is repertoire so magnificent and inspiring in its reach, that the onus should be on packaging it so that a newcomer can feel at home with it; which translates, at the very least, as a commitment to seeking out, and sponsoring, black players.

Vincent Osborne is the chairman of the Black British Classical Foundation. He says that it's insulting to suggest that a young black audience doesn't go to hear a Mahler symphony because it has no relevance or connection to them. "If you cut us, do we not bleed, if you tickle us, do we not laugh?" he responds, quoting Shylock from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. "At the end of the day music moves people, it's passion. I find it so insulting when people say we wouldn't be interested. Because at the end of the day we feel, we laugh, we cry for the same reasons – music moves people."

Marshall Marcus agrees. "I don't think there is anything about classical music, per se, that means it is for any one or other area of the population. What we're aiming for is to bring deeply immersive experiences to complex pieces within the classical music tradition, to everybody. As far as I see it's not the pieces of music that are the problem, it's the way we tend to organise ourselves as a society."

It is why the BBC Proms director, Roger Wright, also controller of BBC Radio 3, continues to programme the most diverse selection of orchestral music without bowing to the pressure of altering repertoire to bring in a specific crowd, although Sunday's Bollywood event did just that.

"We are immensely proud of the work we do," says Wright, talking of "an ambitious development programme" that he hopes will "continue to attract many different audiences, both now and in the future".

Which brings us back to education. Daring to introduce Mozart and Bach – and I'm talking about one-to-one, painful, instrument tuition, too – to a child, rather than mass-deliverance of DJing and hip-hop classes. Fun and easy? Not likely. But life-changing, and society-transforming if delivered with care and skill.

The Proms 2009 runs until 12 September

More strings to the bow: Proms events that broke with tradition

Bollywood, 2009

The audience was for once predominantly Asian at the Bollywood Prom at the Royal Albert Hall this year. There was a three-hour performance of Bollywood's most famous songs, performed by vocalist Shaan, including A R Rahman's "Jai Ho" from the film 'Slumdog Millionaire', alongside glitzy Bollywood dancing.

Goldie, 2009

The DJ Goldie made his classical debut at the Royal Albert Hall in an attempt to attract the drum'n'bass crowd. He was asked to create a new orchestral work for this year's Proms, part of a Darwin-inspired extravaganza for families, and it was performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Doctor Who, 2008

The 'Doctor Who' Prom last year was another groundbreaking moment, attracting hordes of children. Music came from the TV series and there was a UK premiere of 'The Torino Scale' by Mark-Anthony Turnage, with a little help from daleks, Cybermen and other aliens.

Soft Machine, 1970

The music establishment's annual celebration of largely classical and symphonic composition was shaken up by the English rock band Soft Machine, whose headline-grabbing gig at the Proms in 1970 tried to pull in crowds more used to rock concerts.

Reggae, 1998

Bringing reggae to the Proms in 1998 was another tactic to entice a new crowd. The British a cappella ensemble Black Voices, in their Proms debut, performed US Protest Songs, African folk songs and Reggae. It was followed by a performance by the fifty-strong London Community Gospel Choir.