MUSIC / The piggy-bank Proms?: Next year the Proms celebrate their centenary. This year belts have been tightened to pay for the party. Robert Maycock reports

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU think London has too much music, try this for a plan of action. Take the city's biggest concert hall for two months in the middle of summer. To the crowded scene, add at least one concert every day, using some 20 orchestras, plus assorted ensembles and period instrument groups. Broadcast them all, live - some on television. Then take your scheme to the Arts Council as a way to meet its aims of enlarging audiences and diversifying the repertoire.

It won't work, of course. As we all know now, London can only support two symphony orchestras, and that sort of concert is perfectly well catered for in the other halls. So Henry Wood must have been off his head when, 99 seasons ago, he founded his Promenade Concerts, and the BBC was suffering from financial haemophilia when it later decided to back them with money raised from the public. Meanwhile the queues every night sprawl down the steps to Prince Consort Road and sometimes right around the block, and each year the Royal Albert Hall's box office claims some kind of record.

Nobody has ever explained how, in terms of hard facts. The BBC tried a survey several years ago to deal with one old question - where do the Prommers go in the winter? - and found that some of them went to the Coliseum. But now that Not Everybody Needs Opera any more, the Prom bookings haven't followed into statistical decline. In 1992 the attendance went up 3 per cent, to 84 per cent of capacity, and the takings broke the pounds 2 million barrier for the first time.

Every few years some artistic or bureaucratic onslaught threatens to destabilise the Proms. Twenty-five years ago Sir William Glock gave the repertoire a workout which alarmed traditionalists but did not spell the end of musical life as we know it. Not even a genteel picnic with brass-band accompaniment, nor a steel band playing outdoors in hopeless competition with the Notting Hill Carnival, has done that. Robert Simpson attacked the long-term tenure of directors of the Proms, but Robert Ponsonby and subsequently John Drummond have proved to be survivors. Efforts to raise commercial sponsorship have failed, but talk of privatisation has gone quiet as the BBC polishes its image as a cultural patron.

We won't have heard the last of it, especially now that Radio 3 has started asking outsiders to tender for airtime. The Proms have become a separate business unit under the Producer Choice policy; everything is now costed, and instead of having to break even they make a deficit which the network then funds. This year, the programmes have a cost-cutting look about them, with fewer visits from grand foreign orchestras and more dates by youth orchestras, more early music for small groups and only two commissions for new works (from John Buller, 19 July, and Nicholas Sackman, 19 August).

Everybody thinks this is to save up for the big splash on the 100th season in 1994 - a mood boosted by Drummond's wicked aside at this year's launch that early music fans had better make the best of it because there won't be much for them next. But the BBC has declined to discuss exact budgets, though in the next couple of months the Proms will have to put in budgets for approval for the next three years. Drummond says there just aren't so many orchestras touring this year, and passionately defends the youth-orchestra policy: it's a way of telling the world how much stands to be lost as the British music education system is systematically eroded.

There he has a point. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain regularly delivers one of the season's most inspirational nights, and this year it is there (8 August) alongside the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland (14 August) and the National Youth Chamber Orchestra (21 August). And like every season 1993 has its events of international significance, especially in the field of contemporary music. There are UK premieres of big pieces by Toru Takemitsu (15 August) and Witold Lutoslawski (Symphony No 4, 27 August). One extraordinary Sunday, 5 September, has the first complete UK performance of Hans Werner Henze's Requiem at midday, and Beethoven's Choral Symphony from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the evening. Between them, the proposal is for a picnic in the park - to the sound of passing buses and aircraft only.

So what's missing? In a word, diversity. There hasn't been a major shake-up since Glock's time, and musical life has moved on by two generations. Over on the South Bank, not itself exactly a hotbed of radical change, the years of uninterrupted orchestral fare have long gone, and the classical musics of half the world are there alongside most shades of contemporary music, some of them with a large following. At the Proms there's one self-conscious date for jazz or Indian music or high-class rock or brass bands, late at night or in mid-afternoon or otherwise out on the fringe. The contemporary content is solid, respectable, and critically correct - though in the last few years there have been surprises with the popular success of John Tavener's The Protecting Veil and James MacMillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, both of them launched by the Proms.

Still, if you want a good rock concert you aren't going to think of the Proms first, and most of the really innovative music-making at the moment happens on too small a scale for the Royal Albert Hall. What the Proms are good at is gradual development; even Glock's changes were evolution, not revolution, and they had at least as much to do with early music as with the front line. Thirty years ago you'd find all the Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos; now, the majority of them - that's the sort of yardstick.

For the culturally impatient it's a slow way to move. But then the Proms have one good reason not to rush right now. It's easy to agree with the reported view of top BBC managers that Radio 3 can learn from Classic FM when it comes to a welcoming approach. But all through high summer, Radio 3 possesses a nightly asset that feels as familiar as the seasonal cycle. Whatever Classic FM's friendly edge, it still doesn't have the Proms - and that, you can be sure, will ensure some close eyes on the ratings over the next eight weeks.

The Proms begin tonight at the Albert Hall and on Radio Three.

Six pieces to try if you don't know them

Ravel's Piano Trio, arranged for orchestra by Yan Pascal Tortelier (17 July). Sounds mad, but brings it off.

Charpentier's Messe pour les Trepasses (23 July).

Stravinsky's Persephone (11 Aug). A rare chance to hear a ravishing piece.

Koechlin's Les Bandar-log (19 Aug). Eccentric symphonic poem inspired by Kipling.

Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra (9 Sep). If you like Bartok's . . .

Arnold's Clarinet Concerto No 2 (last night, 11 September). Skill and feeling from a ridiculously undervalued British composer.

Six concerts to see at all costs

Strauss's opera Elektra with powerful cast (tonight).

Mahler Symphony No 6 from BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Tadaaki Otaka (28 July).

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, in Bruckner (9 Aug).

Prize programme: offbeat Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bartok, Szymanowski, from the Philharmonia and Chorus and Claus Peter Flor (10 Aug).

European Community Youth Orchestra, conducted by Kurt Sanderling, in Rachmaninov (18 Aug).

Pinchas Zukerman and the English Chamber Orchestra: Ravel, Schubert, Beethoven (26 Aug).

Six concerts to be wary about

The first 'half' of 30 July - only a quarter of an hour (it's the top and tail of Wagner's Tristan).

Thirty-two waltzes in 80 minutes (13 Aug) - both Brahms' sets of Liebeslieder.

The end of the organ recital on 17 Aug - that wedding piece by Widor (don't catch anybody's eye).

Strauss's Alpine Symphony (23 Aug) - if you think symphonies should be elegant and well proportioned.

Ligeti's Piano Concerto (2 Sep) - you could enjoy it.

The last night (11 Sep) - for including Lord Berners' The Triumph of Neptune, one of British music's most justly neglected works.

Six ways to irritate John Drummond

Count the number of women composers.

Complain there isn't any Bax or Bantock.

Ask for more minimalists.

Wonder what the season's theme is.

Murmur that the jazz looks a bit token.

Demand the withdrawal of Rule, Britannia]

(Photographs omitted)

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