Nicholas Kenyon: The mind behind the Proms

Nicholas Kenyon may have broadened both the Proms' repertoire and audience. But, asks Bayan Northcott, has the director lost sight of their guiding principle ? the living classical tradition?
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The Independent Culture

So, tonight, at 7.30, with a multiphonic blast for brass newly composed by Colin Matthews, "the greatest music festival in the world" gets under way yet again: 86 concerts, 74 orchestras and performing groups, 100 works new to the Proms – all the usual mega-statistics. There are a couple of "themes" – Pastoral and Exile – vague enough to encompass much of the usual repertoire. There are centenary celebrations of Verdi, Finzi, Rodrigo and so on, and 10 new BBC commissions including, by now, seemingly obligatory blockbusters from James MacMillan and Sir John Tavener, while the BBC Symphony Orchestra's incoming Chief Conductor, Leonard Slatkin, has been extensively allowed to indulge his taste for accessible Americana.

There is a "Nation's Favourite" prom of Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Elgar, voted for by readers of Radio Times (a manoeuvre surely pinched directly from Classic FM?), a Hollywood film-music evening, a Blue Peter prom, klezmer music, and African drumming, and Jools Holland, and – oh, happy days! – the barest minimum of nasty old modern music from post-war Europe or the New Complexity boys.

Why, then, has the forthcoming season drawn some unwontedly sharp comments from the Guardian and Sunday Times critics? Why, indeed, does your own critic, a veteran of no less than 47 Proms seasons, feel – a few keenly anticipated premieres and programmes apart – distinctly ambivalent about this one? Cynicism, satiation, age? Or is something more serious amiss?

A dangerous question, of course, since there will be any number of regular listeners with long wish-lists of works, from Gesualdo to George Lloyd which, for whatever reason, never seem to get programmed. But then it is easy to over- estimate the freedom any Proms Control- ler enjoys to include just what he likes. In planning the present season, Nicholas Kenyon and his assistants will have not only had to balance a substantial selection of standard repertoire against new work and the celebration of particular anniversaries, but to take account of who is available to perform what, when, and how to integrate the touring programmes of visiting orchestras. And behind all this doubtless lie more covert media requirements to make sure a number of events are televisual or saleable worldwide; financial stringencies that can only be met by ensuring a certain proportion of evenings are guaranteed sell-outs; perhaps still subtler pressures to conform to the required image of a BBC "flagship" series. For a Controller to successfully push unusual repertoire or strongly personal enthusiasms through such thickets of difficulties must require a certain amount of bloody-mindedness.

Before joining the BBC, Kenyon was mainly active as a critic and editor, with special interests in Renaissance and Bar-oque music. And while one could wish he would find ways of programming more Medieval music, this season duly encompasses Tallis, Schütz, Couperin and Rameau, with Les Arts Florissants under William Christie performing Handel's delectable L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.

Yet if Kenyon's strongest feeling has always been for the period-performance movement, he has been prepared to take certain other risks. His inclusion last year of Franz Schmidt's little-known, evening-length oratorio The Book with Seven Seals paid off with a decent-sized audience and an inspired performance. And this year, he has marked the 50th anniversary of Schoenberg's death with no less than 11 items, including such fiercely inventive manifestations of the dreaded 12-tone method as the Violin Concerto and A Survivor from Warsaw, which should help to edge them into the repertoire where they ought to be – even if the placing of the synoptic Variations for Orchestra, Op 31 before Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto still suggests that old spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

But elsewhere, Kenyon's convictions have been less than evident, at times leaving the impression that he is almost too open to lobbying from whoever, too laid-back. And not least in his handling of standard repertoire. Granted, the days when the primary function of the Proms was to offer a digest of the Western concert tradition of the last couple of centuries, when a student like Michael Tippett in the 1920s could get a pretty comprehensive overview from a single season, are long gone. Too much has been rediscovered from before, too much written since or opened up elsewhere, and just about everything is now available in recording.

But, as the votes for the "Nation's Favourite" prom remind one, that traditional core repertoire is still what legions of music-lovers most want to hear – demanding from the concert-planner the subtlest skill in the matching and contrasting of familiar pieces so that they continue to cast fresh light upon one another. It is in routine, if not suspiciously thrown together-looking sequences such as Prom 16, in which, for no obvious reason, Brahms's Variations on the St Anthony Chorale are shoved between Dvorak's Carnival Overture and Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate, that one often misses this skill in the coming season.

Among the novelties, at least, Alexander Goehr's substantial Handel tribute ...second musical offering (GFH 2001) on 10 September could well prove striking if it is anything like as quirky as his first musical offering tribute to Bach (1985), and its broadcast should a little compensate for Radio 3's unaccountable failure to relay his brilliant recent Noh theatre trilogy, Kantan and Damask Drum. It should also be interesting to hear that promising young Scottish composer, Stuart MacRae's "take" on the classical violin concerto on 31 July.

About Tavener's aspiring Song of the Cosmos and MacMillan's mystic plea for peace, Birds of Rhiannon, it is more difficult to suspend a suspicion of déjà vu. Tavener's well-tried ability to inflate about three and a half minutes of musical substance into hour-long rituals may command a certain admiration for its showbiz flare, but the holy sales-talk is another matter. MacMillan's propensity for bringing to bear upon his earnest themes just about every horripilating orchestral effect in the book has not, as yet, been complemented by the emergence of an integrated personal style – but maybe that seems a lesser matter when one is busy saving the world. At least their high-mindedness should contrast tellingly with some of the more populist fun and games that begin to nibble at the edges of the BBC Proms.

Not that these appear to faze Kenyon for, as he told the Royal Philharmonic Society recently: "The musical melting-pot is now a fact, like it or not." But some focus or principle is still necessary if artistic communication is to continue. And in the case of the Proms, that surely remains the idea of the classic and the classical: not in the trivial marketing sense of any music with violins, but in the tradition of music that has transcended the limitations of its immed-iate era and continued to speak to subsequent generations and in varying cultural contexts – and to which composers prepared to take the long view may yet significantly contribute, despite gleeful proclamations of the death of Western tradition among certain of the current World Music confraternity.

Actually, a classical tradition passed down through generations of masterplayers, as in India, or collective performing disciplines, as in Indonesian gamelan music, may be less different than we think from our own tradition of written comp-osition that is often itself a very slow pro-cess of improvisation. This was something that the Proms of 20 years ago were prepared to take on board rather more than today. Indeed, the famous all-night Indian raga session of 1981 ought to have become a recurrent fixture long since – a far more genuinely classical experience, at least to this pair of ears, than the kind of classic-lite candyfloss of John Adams that Maestro Slatkin seems to like so much. Consumerism is not everything, even now.

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