Pop won't make a perfect summer for the Prommers

David Lister says the BBC needs Barenboim's baton more than Bob Marley's beat
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The Independent Online
SHORTLY before he retired as director of the Proms, Sir John Drummond fired a broadside at the rowdy element among fans of the summer concert series - those who shouted out silly rhymes, made an exhibition of themselves and generally showed a lack of respect for great music performed by the world's most famous ensembles.

He didn't have in mind his successor, Nicholas Kenyon.

But the man in charge of both the Proms and BBC Radio 3 has a curious way of publicising such a sustained concentration of symphonic and chamber music.

When booking opens next week the biggest attraction, to judge from press reports let alone the Proms' office, will be the songs of Bob Marley and a Yank singing Rule Britannia. Last year Mr Kenyon's big sensation - as per the advance publicity - was a performance of the music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

In the event Beethoven won't be turning in his grave. All that happened last year was that the King's Singers performed a few Beatles tunes at a late night concert - Ringo did not turn up. All that will happen this year is that in another late night concert Black Voices, an unaccompanied female outfit, will sing some protest songs, including a few Bob Marley numbers. As for the American, it's the baritone Thomas Hampson, a well- known figure on the inter- national opera circuit, whose main purpose on the Last Night is to sing a medley from George Gershwin.

Even so, the inclusion of the Beatles and Bob Marley at the Proms is a bad idea. Primarily because audiences are not getting the Beatles or Bob Marley. Their songs are being filtered through acceptable and respectable ensembles, which won't attract rock fans who want the rawness of the originals. But nor are they expected to attract classical music lovers The fact that Mr Kenyon has again programmed his pop pastiche late at night demonstrates he doesn't really see it as part of the Proms series proper.

So why shout about it? Why is the BBC publicity machine encouraging national newspapers (with some success) to write stories about it? The only possible answer is that the people who run the Proms have lost faith. They no longer have sufficient confidence in the very raison d'etre of the festival - classical music. Music, good music, it seems can't be trusted to make news.

So we have the absurd paradox that for the second year running middle-of-the-road pop music is used to sell a festival that has a superb array of new commissions, world premieres, exciting soloists, a day-long event based on choral music, family concerts and Proms In The Park.

Interestingly, in Mr Kenyon's own foreword to the Proms' brochure there is no mention of Marley. He is rightly more excited about visits by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim, the Berlin Philharmonic with Claudio Abbado and the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Wouldn't it be refreshing if he announced them as the "story" for the Proms this year. Barenboim and Abbado are going to be of far more interest to the people likely to book tickets than Bob Marley. Perhaps Mr Kenyon is a creature of a system. He has not had the easiest time adapting Radio 3 in the face of Classic FM. Yet here is an expert former music critic as well as an informative, entertaining and didactic authority. Instead of displaying a faint but unworthy unease about classical music by forever trying (and failing) to "liven it up" with pop references, the BBC should make greater use of Kenyon's enthusiasm.

He should be out there propagandising and persuading, telling us about the themes running through the Proms, what qualities Barenboim beings to the podium and what is the especial brilliance of the British choral tradition.