The Proms: Flying the flag for classical music

The Proms, which start tonight at the Royal Albert Hall, are a traditional part of the British summer. But some say the music is not British enough, others that the repertoire is too Western by half.
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When the soprano Barbara Frittoli engages with the exquisite sadness of Mozart's "Porgi amor" at the Royal Albert Hall this evening, to be followed by Sir John Tomlinson roaring out Dvorak's Te Deum, they will face an arena audience whose composition can be precisely predicted. Crammed at the front will be music students and connoisseurs, who know that the best acoustic in this sound-eating dome is right up close. Behind them will be the usual suspects: the shaven-headed City gents, the hairy musical trainspotters, the lovers on a tryst, the wide-eyed tourists, and the tweedy rucksack regulars with that triumphantly determined look that suggests that they've hiked in hundreds of miles from the provinces. And the rituals will be the same as ever, with half the hall shouting, "Heave!", as the piano is dragged into position, and the other half shouting, "Ho!", when its lid is lifted.

Writing as long ago as 1938, Henry Wood, co-founder, with the bass and impresario Robert Newman, of the Promenade concerts in 1895, distilled their essence in terms that - though they were then held at the Queen's Hall, Langham Place - are still applicable today: "Where in the whole world could we see such sights as we see in the months of August and September each year? Hundreds of young men and girls ... who wander during the interval to sit on the steps of All Souls' Church and discuss the concerto or the quality of some soprano's high C; who will stand stock-still for 40 minutes at a stretch in a hall with the thermometer high in the eighties; who will applaud generously and wholeheartedly those whose artistry they appreciate?"

But the promenade-concert tradition goes way back: to Sadler's Wells in the 17th century, whence it moved to Vauxhall Gardens in the 18th, and to the magnificent rotunda in Ranelagh Gardens - where the Royal Hospital Chelsea now stands - in which an eight-year-old boy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played his works on organ and harpsichord, and Handel and Haydn premiered theirs.

If the Proms, now in their 112th season, are the world's most important music festival, they are also the most unchanging. And this is both their strength and, some say, their weakness. Nicholas Kenyon, who has occupied the hot seat as Proms director for the last decade, readily admits that the most effective custodians of this tradition are the audience themselves. He points, as though it's still fresh in the memory, to the public outcry that Sir Malcolm Sargent provoked in 1953 when he omitted Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs from the Last Night of the Proms programme, on account of the accompanying rowdiness. They were apologetically reinstated as an encore. This is the People's Prom par excellence, and the audience calls the shots.

"It's one of those quintessentially British things that make up the calendar of major national events, like Wimbledon, the Trooping of the Colour, and the FA Cup Final," says Kenyon. "I've been attacked for departing by the merest iota from the traditional programme, so I must move it on very gently." There are times, however, when external events dictate the rules, most notoriously when the First World War caused the suspension of Henry Wood's beloved Wagner night. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the ensuing transformation of Kensington Palace into a shrine, led to a series of quick programme changes, including the insertion of Fauré's Requiem, and the hasty deletion of John Adams's unfortunately titled Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

Since 9/11 also took place just before the Last Night (under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, an American), that, too, led to a drastic rethink, with the jingoistic "Rule, Britannia!" being removed, as well as the unfortunate Adams's Short Ride... yet again. In went Barber's Adagio for Strings, plus the ecstatic finale of Beethoven's Ninth, to soften the tone. "Jerusalem", with its visionary utopianism, escaped the chop.

Kenyon shudders at the thought of some atrocity derailing this year's plans, but he will adapt if one occurs. "The Proms do adjust," he says. 'That's the whole point about them. We have to be in tune with what people are feeling, and respond."

And he's certainly responded intelligently to the dawning of the digital age. When he took up the reins, there was no internet booking, no web-streaming, no text-message information service, and no digital television relaying three full weeks of the Proms on BBC4; now, all these are a reality. He may have launched and subsequently dropped three new schemes - the Proms lectures, the Poetry Proms, and the Nation's Favourite Prom - but, as he reasonably points out, it makes no sense to go on stubbornly doing things for which there is no proven demand.

On the other hand, he has expanded the Proms' educational and outreach activities, including the Music Intro scheme, whereby families get group tickets at reduced prices, and the Out+About concerts in Brixton, Hackney and Hammersmith. He's resolutely chasing audiences for the future. And the quintupling of the Proms in the Park, with simultaneous events in Belfast, Glasgow, Manchester and Swansea, which all finally merge into one seamless event, really will, for a brief moment, draw the United Kingdom joyously together.

All this may be important, but it's still the icing on the cake: the real test for a Proms director is the programme itself. So, how is Kenyon doing? If you look at the number of concerts alone, the answer is, more than ever before. Taking advantage of the revamped Cadogan Hall, in Sloane Terrace, with its fine acoustic, he has added a series of Saturday matinées to the chamber concerts he'd previously transferred there from the V&A: the Cadogan concerts will both augment the late-night strand at the Albert Hall, and shine unexpected light on Mozart and Shostakovich, whose anniversaries provide this year's central Proms theme.

As for that theme itself, one might meanly point out that, with wall-to-wall Mozart everywhere else this year, one could have expected the Proms to offer something more distinctive than a mere smattering of his works - particularly since Kenyon has himself just written a book on Mozart. Kenyon's defensive answer is that the variety of styles in which that music is presented may provide new insights, "and it will be for others to judge if that adds up". We will.

The Shostakovich question is more interesting. Thirty years ago, he had almost dropped from view in British concert schedules: now, he's the hero of the hour. How does Kenyon explain this? "It's something in the temper of the times, and in the direct emotional statements that his works make, their bold simplicity. I think the Romantic composers are too heart-on-sleeve for a present-day audience. Shostakovich's works relate to the political dilemmas we've recently been through. And now that the music of the 'new complexity' has waned in influence, and a thousand idiomatic flowers are blooming, he's found his moment."

The new-music community won't be impressed by the fact that there are only six new BBC Radio 3/Proms commissions this year, though some of the UK premieres - notably, works by Golijov, Turnage, Harvey and Henze - promise well. But there's no faulting Kenyon's selection of performers, with a brilliantly varied range of orchestras and ensembles, and with Olympian instrumentalists such as Richard Goode and Andras Schiff offsetting bright young sparks such as Vengerov, Kissin, Grimaud, Josefowicz, Jansen, and the irrepressible Lang Lang.

Last year's excellent Violin Day is echoed by this year's Voice Day, in which Orlando Gough's choir The Shout will be supplemented by the Prommers' Rabble Choir for a new work marrying a text on climate change by Caryl Churchill with a medieval poem. Lateral thinking is something at which Kenyon is good.

And he's having to box clever with the lobbyists who want to skew the programme. His reply to those who want more 20th-century British music is that the Proms are an international festival, which has successfully made London the world's musical capital. His answer to those who bewail the absence of women composers - there's not a single one this year - is that this is a blip, and that Judith Weir, Sofia Gubaidulina and Sally Beamish, who often do figure, would be insulted by such positive discrimination.

But there is one important front on which Kenyon is vulnerable to attack, and he knows it. Britain - and, above all, London - is now a multicultural society: how should the Proms respond? Kenyon's reply is ultra-cautious: "Our first aim must be to achieve a more multicultural audience, and it is to that that all our audience-development work is geared." What about the programme itself? "One has to be open to the best work that is going on in any of those cultural areas." Like Indian and Pakistani music? "Yes. The programme needs to be something that a British audience would recognise as their music, however multicultural. But it also needs to be something that the present-day classical- music audience would recognise as part of their sound-world." Would he put Indian raga in that category? "It's absolutely one of the traditions that, from time to time, the Proms ought to reflect. But just as we don't do a jazz prom every year, or a Gilbert and Sullivan prom..." His voice trails off, then he concludes: "That's an interesting challenge for the future."

No, Mr Kenyon, it's a challenge very much for the present. And it's a colossal demotion of one of our constituent cultures to rank it alongside jazz, and Gilbert and Sullivan, and to think that an airing "from time to time" is adequate. It may be true that the classical repertoire has expanded exponentially over the past couple of decades - this year, even Beethoven only makes three appearances - and that, even with 90 concerts, the Proms programme can only scratch the surface. But I suggest that it's now time for a rethink every bit as radical as that with which Kenyon's illustrious predecessor, Sir William Glock, galvanised the Proms, after the inertia and predictability of the post-war Sargent years.

Kenyon points with pride to the "Electric Proms", which will take place later this year at the refurbished Roundhouse in Camden. "These," he says, "will reflect the best values of the Proms, and will eventually do for popular music what the Proms have done for classical music."

In other words, Kenyon is indeed ready to think outside the box. But does the pop industry really need help from the Proms? This is a monumental misdirection of effort. And it makes the heart sink, in the same way that BBC Radio 3's chirpily patronising "youth" programmes do. Why is it assumed that the only way to engage teenagers with music is to talk down to them? If junior film-buffs are praised for their connoisseurship, and 13-year-old football fans are encouraged to discuss the game with the sagacity of middle-aged pundits, why should 13-year-old classical-music fans be treated like infants and halfwits? It doesn't add up.

Or rather, what it adds up to is the rampant anti-intellectualism that I found Sir Peter Maxwell Davies raging against, when I visited him at the Royal Academy of Music. The Master of the Queen's Music has just been listening to David Cameron's Desert Island Discs choice on BBC Radio 4, and he's not amused. "In any other European country," he says, "a politician who chose that sort of garbage would be laughed out of court. The anti-artistic stance of our leaders gets up my nose. Their main aim is to turn us all into unquestioning passive consumers who put money into the bosses' pockets. That is now the purpose of education." As it happens, Max has put his money where his mouth is for his own Prom this year, by splicing a children's choir with orchestra and military trumpets in his setting of the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion's poem, "The Golden Rule", to create A Little Birthday Music for the Queen's 80th. As he puts it, "One must look to the future".

Meanwhile, the multicultural question still demands an answer. If Nicholas Kenyon is prepared to create - admittedly, outside the main Proms season - a demonstrably superfluous pop strand, why should he not create a genuinely useful one for the cultures that make up contemporary Britain? Why shouldn't the Cadogan Hall play host to a series of concerts of classical music from India, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Far East? The Proms' current world-music fare is mere tokenism, one concert per year, with this year's being given by some representatives of Radio 3-style global pop.

I am not suggesting for one minute that the Western classical tradition should be derailed from its dominance in the Proms proper: it is their glory, and their raison d'être. But if Nicholas Kenyon wants to justify his boast that the Proms tradition has a "unique ability to reinvent itself", creating a parallel strand for the other classical traditions would be the perfect way to prove it.

SIX UNMISSABLE PROMS

'COSI FAN TUTTE' (PROM 6)

The visual beauty of Glyndebourne's new production won't be on show here, but the singing of the lovers is uniformly superb. Miah Persson and Anke Vondung are paired with Topi Lehtipuu and Luca Pisaroni; Ivan Fischer conducts.

'POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE' COMPLETED (PROM 26)

Here is this season's big story: Anthony Payne, who triumphantly completed Elgar's Third Symphony, now does the same for one of his lost marches. Also, Evgeny Kissin tackles Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto.

MICHAEL HAYDN'S 'REQUIEM' (PROM 33)

Not content with starring in Mozart's Requiem later in the season, that lustrous young soprano Carolyn Sampson (left) leads the King's Consort in this fascinating rarity. Mozart's "Coronation" Mass makes an excellent add-on.

'LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK' (PROM 49)

Under the electrifying direction of Valery Gergiev (right), the Mariinsky soloists, chorus, and orchestra deliver Shostakovich's opera, whose assault on audience sensibilities provoked an attack from the Soviet state.

'A RELIC OF MEMORY'

(PROM 53)

Mark-Anthony Turnage, whose works include an elegy for his dead brother, here weaves an elegy for his friend Sue Knussen, the producer who died in 2003, around a Seamus Heaney poem, in an orchestration that reflects Bach's St Matthew Passion in every bar.

MAHLER'S 'RESURRECTION' SYMPHONY (PROM 70)

The soprano Susan Gritton and mezzo Christianne Stotijn star under Bernard Haitink's baton in Mahler's monumental death-to-rebirth symphony. The massed forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the London Symphony Chorus will guarantee 85 minutes of transcendental music.

Michael Church

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