When the music stops...

As Nicholas Kenyon launches the Proms into their second century, Bayan Northcott wonders how music will fare in John Birt's new digital BBC
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The Independent Culture
"Welcome," cries the Radio 3 controller,Nicholas Kenyon, "to the second century of BBC Proms..." And the presentation of the new season is clearly intended to convey the image of a bright, fresh start - from the sub-Matisse-cut-out front cover of the Proms guide to its tipped-in CD at the back, revealing John Peel's unexpected enthusiasm for Bruckner, not to mention the rather more material decision to kick off the concerts with Haydn's primal masterpiece, The Creation.

Yet it would be premature to take the 1996 season as a comprehensive promise of things to come. Professional concert-planning being the long- term competitive business it now is, many of the more starry visiting artists and orchestras must have been booked some time back by Kenyon's predecessor, Sir John Drummond, who doubtless also placed most of this year's new commissions from, inter alia, James Dillon, Dominic Muldowney and John Woolrich. Nor, given Kenyon's known open-mindedness, should one assume that the regrettable absence of anything by women composers - some six were represented last year - is other than a temporary anomaly.

More positively, and without resorting to the Procrustean drawbacks of overtly "thematic" planning, Kenyon has set up some nice continuities between programmes: for instance, the 14 Stravinsky items marking the quarter of a century since his death are counterpointed by a number of examples of how other modern composers have also re-worked earlier music. Not least, the Family Concert for listeners aged 10-plus on 26 August and the Junior Prom on 9 September for children aged six to 14 could prove a promising development for the future.

But not till next year, when Kenyon reveals the first season he has more or less planned from scratch, will it become evident whether he has any more radical shifts of taste or format in mind; or, for that matter, whether his choices are likely to lay him open to the charges of unfairness towards certain styles or composers which periodically greeted Drummond's plans and those of his predecessors, Robert Ponsonby and William Glock. And, by then, something potentially more ominous should have become clearer.

Until recently, it was possible to argue - as Kenyon still does - that, whatever one thought of the upheavals wrought by the BBC's director-general, John Birt, he had at least secured the renewal of the licence fee as the basis of BBC finances, and to that extent assured the future of Radio 3, the Proms and the BBC orchestras. Nor is that achievement to be lightly dismissed, considering how close some of Birt's managerial predecessors came to hiving off the orchestras with their infamous "Broadcasting in the Seventies" strategy of 26 years ago, or again in the run-up to the 1981 Musicians' Union strike. But the implications of the total internal restructuring which Birt announced five weeks ago upon BBC Radio's unique standing as by far this country's most powerful patron of music and musicians are far more difficult to construe - especially as current outrage is rightly concentrated upon what appear to be his destructive proposals for the World Service.

As a network controller, as well as director of the Proms, Kenyon will presumably continue to float above the coming struggle. But the proposed merger of television and radio into a single command structure looks unhelpful, to say the least. Of all the artistic forms, concert music seems to gain least from the box. True, BBC Television will be relaying or recording 10 of 1996's more popular Proms programmes - doubtless maddening Royal Albert Hall audiences with moving cameras and the heat of extra lightning. But the Last Night apart - the second half of which, this year, is being relayed to a giant screen in Hyde Park - the world-wide dissemination and influence of the Proms remains essentially a radio affair. Yet who, one wonders, will dominate policy in the new structure: the Head of Music, Radio, or the Head of Music, Television? And with Birt's bemusing counter- proposal to separate completely the commissioning of programmes from their production, what is to become of the kind of creative music producer who has traditionally had a bright idea for a series, got it accepted and costed, and gone ahead and made it - those specialist enthusiasts in the BBC Radio Music Division upon whose knowledge and advice successive directors of the Proms have depended so heavily?

Nor should the ultimate purpose of the restructuring be forgotten, which is to achieve across-the-board financial savings of between 20 and 30 per cent in order to "address the strategic challenge of the digital age". Whatever the reassurances, it is hard to imagine that the funds the BBC invests in music - apparently approaching pounds 30 million a year - are likely to go unplundered. And, of course, it is only a few short years to the next battle over the licence fee - by which time, given the proliferation of channels, far fewer than 50 per cent may be viewing BBC Television (even if the musical audience for BBC Radio holds up) and the charge that the licence amounts to a kind of poll tax will seem even less resistible.

And even assuming that some continuing form of arm's-length public subsidy to replace the licence fee could be found and the Corporation escapes creeping privatisation by a thousand subscription channels, it becomes more and more difficult to forecast what a surviving series of BBC Henry Wood Proms might be like in 10 years' time, let alone 20, 50 or 100. A century ago, any Promenader speculating about the future would have had at least some stable assumptions to go on: that musical experience, from the lightest to the most serious, was essentially a unity in which an Elgar could produce flighty salon pieces and weighty oratorios in recognisably the same idiom, and that, provided it was talented enough, even the most difficult new music would eventually establish itself in the repertoire. Indeed, what is striking about such radical early modern challenges as The Rite of Spring of Stravinsky or Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire is not so much the initial outrage they provoked as the speed with which they were accepted as 20th-century classics.

To the degree that composers still feel honoured to write for the Proms and Promenaders to give them a hearing, and to the extent that audiences, at least in the Royal Albert Hall, would probably still agree that the thrill of the live experience beats even the most perfected recording, something of those old continuities survive even now. Yet the idea of the Western canon, of composition as a continuing search for truths that can be expressed in no other way, is increasingly under threat from international media corporations who see more profit in promoting "classical" music as a series of short-winded, pop-type fads, while the technology enabling listeners to alter the tempi and dynamics of a recording to the performance they would prefer to hear cannot be far off. And then...?

Yet it says much for Kenyon's belief in the institution he has inherited that he has consulted musicians on what unduly neglected works they would most like to hear in forthcoming Proms seasons - a process that might interestingly be extended to audiences as well. Meanwhile, John Birt owes it to the profession and the public to show that he even understands how variously and vitally BBC Radio has catalysed serious music and music- making in this country over the past 70 years, let alone how his managerial manipulations may affect its future.

n Proms 96: at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, from this Friday until 14 September (and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3). Booking: 0171-589 8212

n Proms competition: three pairs of Proms tickets to be won each week, starting this Monday on the 'Back Pages'

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