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BBC Proms 2009: Glances & reactions

April 10, 2009

08042009770The launch of the 2009 BBC Proms season at the Royal College of Music on Wednesday 8 April was incredibly well timed. It heralded the beginning of a cheekily extended Easter break for me, a legitimate excuse to guzzle some red wine in a stylish glass (even if a number of the journalists there were smugly sticking to elderflower and sparkling water) and an opportunity to lay my hands on a knee-trembling fresh print of the brochure.5

It was my first time at a Proms launch. I resisted the temptation to go steaming inside the recently redecorated Concert Hall with a notebook, opting to make mental notes of everything I observed.

Proms director Roger Wright gave an address to the assembled crowd, proudly detailing the key points of the season to a 250 strong crowd and at the same time demonstrating his unfailing ability to crack some pretty corny jokes. If I go next year I’ll make sure I distribute some “I heart Roger Wright” badges before the event kicks off. It was an incredibly charming speech to launch the 2009 season.

Minutes after I found myself engaged in a highly efficient conversation with an adorable and extremely effective publicist whose skill at “working the room” was second to none.

In another part of the room the Editor of the Radio 3 website inadvertently massaged my already inflated ego by pointing out to me which things were off the record and which weren’t. I later concluded from this that I was, by him at least, regarded as a journalist. (For the purposes of this blog and having the words “remember which side your bread is buttered” ringing around my head however, it’s probably best I don’t say a word about anything … ever.)

08042009768Being there for the press launch was a special experience. Three years before I’d fallen off my bike in a road traffic accident and nursing a limp, some scars and the pain of the UK’s most embarrassingly and justifiably poor showing in the Eurovision Song Contest (Yes, that would have been Scooch and their pitiful Flying the Flag song. I wasn’t happy about it), I settled down with my brochure to keep my mind off the excruciating pain in my knee.

Three years later I’m stood around at the launch observing various people I recognised even if their names weren’t immediately recallable. An opportunity to have a nose around the Royal College of Music – somewhere I wouldn’t have minded going myself (I wasn’t anywhere good enough) and to imagine I might have been walking in Benjamin Britten’s footsteps – seemed too good to miss. It meant a lot to be there.

Wine aside, it was the moment of leaving the event which made the evening. That’s when invited guests got to receive their complimentary copy of the brochure. The excitement was almost too much to bear. I went to the toilet before I left the event so my journey home on the tube was as comfortable as possible.

08042009777It turned out that the all important brochure had in fact been available at a chain of newsagents at various London train stations, shops I frequent on a daily basis but which I obviously hadn’t spent sufficient time in otherwise I would have bought one.

There’s an added feature with this year’s Proms bible (in addition to an interesting thing from Ian Hislop about concert etiquette featuring a reasonably amusing contribution from a messageboard contributor on the subject). Ladies and gentlemen please put your hands together for the utterly brilliant inclusion of a wallchart. Now I can view the summer stretching out before me. Pity I have to wait until 17 July for it to get underway.

A cursory glance over the opinion formers in the mainstream press has been revealing and reassuring all at the same time. Neil Fisher writing for the Times seemed nice enough when he described the season as “a panoply of starry evenings” although his obvious disregard for light music in general (even if he is rating the MGM film gig by the brilliant John Wilson) makes me think he and I probably wouldn’t get on. Fisher is probably a baroque music fan. In fact, I’d put money on it. Unless of course I’ve totally misunderstood him.

Tom Service picks out his list of highlights, just as Carrie Ann does from Passionato. It’s David Lister however who sees me sharpening my knives and retrieving my special “Let’s have a fight in the carpark mate” handbag. It seems I’m not the only either.

According to Lister this year’s launch sees “ a failure to trumpet the glories of classical music” with undue attention focussed on the likes of the Indian Voices Day, the commission by DJ Drum and Bass/Maestro star/Where-the-hell-did-he-emerge-from-exactly Goldie and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood piece. These are the gimmicks, apparently. Presumably if we extrapolate this, this is the stuff which proves the dumbing down of a much-loved event.

David Lister misses one fundamental point.08042009774

It doesn’t really matter what is on offer at the Proms. The Proms is for everyone. It’s there like the very best of radio. You don’t have to listen to every single one to enjoy them and, like anything good on radio, its there to be dipped into as and when. You know what you’ll get if you switch it on – a live performance on radio and a near as damn it one on TV. There’ll be something you might recognise and quite possibly something you don’t. The point is there’s something for everyone. It is designed to appeal to a broad church. Judging the season by the way it’s sold to the press somewhat misses the point.

Instead, judge it according to what you find in the brochure. Go through it in chronological order. Make a list of the stuff which interests you. I did. And I found there was quite a lot which was unfamiliar. (There’s a very hastily drawn up list here which, in the coming weeks will get progressively easier on the eye and filled up with a bit more information.)

For me, at least, the more which is unfamiliar the better and that even extends to the merging of popular and “serious” (I loathe the term, but it will have to suffice for now) musical styles. There is nothing better than boundaries being blurred and peoples’ backs being got up.

More importantly for me, the Proms is about being exposed to repertoire or styles or artists you wouldn’t normally consider for the rest of the year.

With long days, the sun high in the sky and the air temperature warm enough to warrant shorts and t-shirts, the Proms has a captive audience whether at home or in the Royal Albert Hall. If you can’t get people to listen to something relatively obscure during the Proms you’ll probably never manage it. The Proms is a massive shop window.

08042009778I’ve been through the brochure four times since Wednesday night and find it difficult to pinpoint “highlights”. Still, as I go through it for a fifth time this morning these are the ones which see me put a big tick with a fat marker pen by the side.

What’s interesting for me is how much new work I want to go along to. There was a time when new music intimidated me. I wanted the guarantee of a melody, harmonies I recognised with not too much dissonance. Now my demands have changed. All I want now is to be provoked. There’s nothing better than new music to provoke.

If you’ve seen the interview I did with Roger Wright (yes, shameless self-promotion there but it was the only way I could start this particular paragraph) you may be surprised to see Handel’s works on my list too.

It’s the anniversary of Handel’s death this year. Charles Hazlewood will be doing a documentary series on the important contribution Handel made to British music – something which will be screened during the Proms film series if you don’t see it when it’s broadcast or catch it on BBC iPlayer. Ever since I’d seen the Proms running order a few weeks back I have made an effort to consume more Handel works. The opinion still remains however. Personally, I find the works of Handel the dullest ever.

I realise I’m going against the grain. There are plenty of people who have vehemently disagreed with me, suggesting that I’m showing ignorance. The classical music world looks down on ignorance from way up on top of its moral high-ground. The idea that anyone would describe Handel’s output as “boring” is justification for getting the rusty spears out and taking aim.

The more I listen to his operas and oratorios, the more I listen to the great and the good pass comment on the composer the more I end up feeling even more bemused. I can see that I may not yet understand the finer points of why Handel is important, but I don’t find myself moved by the sound of his music.

You’d think on that basis I’d dismiss the Proms concerts his music features in too, but the truth is that there’s a challenge to rise to. With a summer of his music stretching out ahead and an already declared personal disinterest in his music, the 2009 Proms season offers an opportunity for me to find out more about the composer.

How will I feel at the season end on 12 September? Will I have performed an about turn about the man? Will I be eating my words ? It seems the Proms will indirectly be educating me once again this year just as it did with Karlheinz Stockhausen last year. All for £120-odd for a season ticket and every gig live on Radio 3.

Yes, that’s right. I’m one satisfied licence-fee payer who also happens to be an employee hence why I point any new visitors to the Thoroughly Good blog in this very important direction.

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