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Thirty years ago next summer, the Proms nearly died. In an early-Thatcherite manoeuvre, the BBC decided to cut the number of orchestras it employed from eleven to six and the Musicians’ Union called a summer strike. Broadcasting House issued a statement declaring that ‘the BBC is prepared to sacrifice the Proms rather than drop the plan to disband five orchestras’ and the nation settled into a wearisome routine of mutual name-calling and third-party arbitration.
Intransigence was the spirit of the times. An offer by the Proms controller, Robert Ponsonby, to play the concerts with an audience at the Royal Albert Hall but no broadcast was shot down by the managing director of BBC Radio for being contrary to ‘our national orchestral aspirations’ - as if some petty sheet of management-speak could take precedence over a Festival that had run since 1895, unbroken by economic crash or Nazi bombs that destroyed its first hall.
For twenty black nights in 1980, Radio 3 spun records and musicians staged anti-BBC Proms all around the town. On the eve of the fourth week, a deal was struck and both sides lost. The union gave up six orchestras and the BBC public sympathy. Applications for Last Night tickets fell by a third and it took four years and a costly marketing campaign to restore ticket sales to pre-strike levels.
Of all the BBC’s cultural errors in my time, and there have been plenty, the Proms strike was the most block-headed. That there was a need to disband regional and light orchestras was beyond question but, by putting the Proms on the line in an industrial dispute, the BBC showed how remote it was from the popular mood. A lesson was learned: painful, drastic and still evolving.
Heads rolled. The rumbustious John Drummond was brought in to replace the quiet Ponsonby and the Proms were stamped with a large BBC logo, never knowingly overlooked. Year by year the audience has grown - in house, on-line and on air to 16 million - and decade by decade the brand has been retuned.
Drummond upgraded new music and visiting orchestras, resisting pressures to trivialise. Nicholas Kenyon, his 1996 successor, added outdoor Last Nights in Hyde Park and all four corners of the kingdom. Roger Wright, who took over last year, will seize his chance this summer to freshen up the festival – a timely moment since classical listening is rising in recession and BBC Radio 3, with an increased audience share, has just been named Station of the Year.
Wright’s Proms will be the first to exceed 100 events, many of them with Proms-Plus accessories. The brand is unaltered and the innovations are generally careful extensions of successful past experiments. A tentative sampling of Indian music has become a whole day of Indian voices. A rare piano recital by Kissin or Lang Lang, mesmerising the Victorian mausoleum, becomes a whole day of multiple pianos featuring anything from a hotel-lobby pianola to the six-deck pianocircus ensemble. The multi-piano strand, fronted by the French sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque, is carried on through the season by way of two-piano concertos by Poulenc, Martinu, Andriessen, Mozart and Zimmermann.
Proms planners have learned the hard way at the box-office that it is impossible to extend a single style or theme across seven weeks. The year’s four big anniversaries – Purcell Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn – are deftly celebrated without being allowed to dominate, likewise the 75th birthdays of three British composers, Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies. Alongside them, and for no obvious reason except that the format permits it, music from all eleven ballets by Igor Stravinsky is being performed complete for the first time in a single season.
While other big festivals at Salzburg, Lucerne, Aix, Aldeburgh and Edinburgh are stand-alone events, unrelated to anything that happens through the rest of the year, the Proms exist to advertise the BBC’s regular provision of a rich and varied diet of classical music, distinct from commercial radio’s restricted playlist. Into the Proms this year come the mysteriously neglected modern masters Schnittke, Ligeti, Lutoslawski and George Crumb, whose whale-sound Vox balanae has never been heard before in this setting, a moment for Darwinian contemplation.
The Proms this year are, more than ever before, a pick-and-mix bag of chewies of the kind we once chose in a high-street chain before it went bust this winter. Their chief appeal is a reputation (est. 1895) for being ridiculously cheap. You can queue for standing room at £5 or get in for less than half as much on a variety of season tickets. No other attraction, not even oldies’ afternoon at your local fleapit, offers nearly as much entertainment for so little money, and that’s without the inbuilt suggestion that the Proms are the best place in town to meet a single person of similar interests.
Last year, uptake for main concerts hit a record 90 percent. The overall £8.8 million cost of the Proms leaves the BBC with a £6 million net loss, yet when tempted with offers of commercial sponsorship, even the slide-rule John Birt regime recognised that credit for the Proms is too precious to be shared. The Proms are the BBC’s gift to the nation and the world.
Slowly and screaming, television has been dragged back into the picture this year, showing no fewer than 25 Proms across four channels, albeit with dumbed-down presentation in front of a large potted plant. The BBC is getting whatever it can out of the Proms to reclaim the cultural high ground. But the more it brands and blazons the Proms, the more the BBC misses the point.
London in midsummer is a musical desert. The Proms are the only place to hear a live concert for those who cannot get away. The bigger the Proms get, the more they reflect something larger than low-cost music and less civic than the case for public broadcasting in a multi-channel environment. The Proms, ever-evolving, have outgrown these parameters. They are the premier emblem of London in summertime, parched parks and tepid beers, sweltering tube trains and air-conditioned bookstores, a chaffinch always singing in the trees. But they are also, on air and on-line, bigger than time and place. At 100 concerts and so much more, the Proms have grown into an annual Festival of Britain, the very best of us, our window to the world.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]