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Until a backstage fire wiped out last Sunday’s Philadelphia Prom, the main talking point of the summer concerts has been empty seats. Not just whistling gaps in the Royal Albert Hall’s antiquated dentures but vast empty stretches, big enough to fit a second symphony orchestra, embarrassingly visible on national TV (well, BBC4 anyway).
Critics reported the vacancies in their reviews and my colleague Fiona Maddocks concluded with unusual asperity that the time may have come to change the Proms formula, shorten the season, try something else. TV producers were under orders in the later transmissions to point their cameras at the better populated areas of the hall and a slight depression settled on the world’s longest music festival just as it was hitting the high notes of its closing week.
That, at least, was the evidence of eyes and ears. But in a BBC backroom where the final tallies are still being counted, the statistics tell a very different story. This year’s attendances, I am told, matched the record high of 2005 with 86 percent of all available seats sold – and this despite two low weeks early on when extreme heat and the airlines scare caused many to stay away. There is not much a music festival can do about terrorism but it would help if the hall did something about its useless air conditioning.
Eighty-six percent is no small score. It is at least ten points higher than the South Bank, Barbican or any hall in Britain manages for classical music year on year, and the RAH is the largest of the lot. On these results, the Proms can credibly claim to be Britain’s most successful classical music enterprise.
The internal analysis is equally impressive. No fewer than 35 of the 73 concerts sold out down to the last standing place and they included all four BBC Symphony Orchestra nights with chief conductor Jiri Belohlavek, a clear public endorsement of a determinedly low-profile appointment. Two premieres by living composers, usually an audience deterrent, were among the top-selling attractions, marking significant gains for Mark Anthony Turnage and the Finn, Magnus Lindberg. A Sunday afternoon solo organ recital by David Goode sold enough seats to fill any other hall in the land. And Saturday matinees at nearby Cadogan Hall, off Sloane Square, got off to a flying start with three sell-outs in four.
So what are we to make of the visible mass of empty seats? Like every musical form, the Proms are open to interpretation. There are 1,270 seats in the hall that are privately owned by individuals and companies whose investment allows the old mausoleum to function without public subsidy. These owners are entitled to attend any event without notice and are under no obligation to release unoccupied seats for box-office sale. That goes some way towards accounting for concentrate gaps in the top-priced stalls. There are six nights, though, when the debenture holders release all of their seats and those nights – Monday was the latest – all 4,400 seats are sold (see below) you could not squeeze an infant pilchard into the house.
At the opposite extreme, when the hall is less than a third full, the BBC maintains that a certain level of vacancies is intentional. ‘We don’t aim to sell out every Prom,’ says Nicholas Kenyon who has been Proms Director for the past decade. ‘It’s wonderful when they are full but it’s also wonderful to get 1,000 for (US experimentalist) Morton Feldman, whose music has never been heard before at the Proms.’ Kenyon has introduced 930 new works over his term, and while some are minor scrapings of the great masters, most are challenging modern scores which help, at best, to build an eventual sell-out following for the likes of Turnage and Lindberg.
Empty seats, says Kenyon, ‘are not an illusion, but a function of the way we plan. We could plan the Proms to sell 100 percent but that wouldn’t deserve support from the licence fee. We have a mission to educate and we mix the high points of classical repertoire with the new and unexpected.’
This year’s lowest selling Proms were four late-night programmes of contemporary music, starting at 10 pm and drawing between 800 and 1,000 devotees (see below). No other event drew fewer than 1,000 listeners and the lowest main-evening attendance – Marc Albrecht with the BBC Scottish – managed twice that.
The prime triumph of the Proms is that they attract more 15-44 years olds than any other concert series and on a broader geographical span - more Home Counties than London suburbs, more cheese sarnies than caviar City types. In terms of social dividend, the BBC’s summer investment pays off more handsomely than the clumsy attempts at audience engineering by New Labour’s puppet Arts Council.
Which is not to say that all is bright and beautiful at the BBC Proms. The Prommers who throng the pit are not getting any younger and their interval chants are tediously charmless. One week shorter at either end of the season might increase its intensity and a fresh face at the top would certainly signal, perceptually if nothing else, a progressive impetus within the BBC.
Rumours of Kenyon’s departue have been rife all summer, though he cheerfully dismisses them, maintaining that ‘I will go on planning the Proms until someone tells me to stop.’ He has many innovations to his credit - late-night concerts, Proms in the Park and across the nation, solo recitals, a little touch of Sondheim and the Beatles. But ten years is long enough for anyone to run a major festival and Kenyon, bubbly character that he is, appreciates the danger of growing stale. Pressures are mounting within the BBC to combine his role once more with the Radio 3 controllership, saving an executive post and demonstrating best practice to the incoming BBC Trust.
Kenyon is busy programming all the way up to the Haydn Year of 2009 but change at the top will come sooner than that, and the next director will need to address, as a major reform, the damaging spectacle of empty rows.
It is not in anyone’s interest for the Proms to appear half-empty, least of all for the performers since there is nothing that lowers musical tension more dramatically than a desultory house. Some deal must be contrived by which seat-owners allow people in the upper reaches to upgrade in the second half of an under-populated event – or even to have second-half empties sold for a pound at the door. It seems sadly anachronistic that the enlightened formula on which the Albert Hall functions gives a misleading impression of its appeal and an effort must be made before next summer to make sure the Proms appear as popular as they truly are.
1 Wagner: Siegfried (July 16)
2 Mozart: Cosi/Glyndebourne (July 18)
3 Blue Peter Prom (July 23)
4 Shostakovich ‘Babi Yar’/Gergiev (Aug 20)
5 Bruckner 7th/Rattle (Sep 2)
6 Beethoven 5th/Philadelphia (Sep 4)
Hard sell Proms
1 Jonathan Dove and Colin Matthews works for wind (July 17)
2 Hans Werner Henze: Voices (Aug 1)
3 Vocal music by Gruber, Eisler and Weill (Aug 22)
4 Vocal works by Kurtag, Feldman and Schumann (Aug 31)
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]