Of course the Proms still have faith in classical music

In the Sunday Telegraph this weekend, Stephen Pollard slammed the BBC Proms, saying the recent expansion of its repertoire has betrayed its purpose as a classical music concert series. I can’t agree – in fact the opposite is true.

The Proms have never been content to feature only the mainstream of music, and alongside tried-and-true classics, from its early days in the late 19th century, the season pushed the boundaries. For founder Henry Wood, the Proms could range from popular ballads to premieres by Debussy, Mahler and Schoenberg, all composers unknown to their day whose scores challenged conventional ideas of great music – like the video game music concert of This year.

Over the years, audience tastes have changed enormously, and the Proms have reflected this – no doubt they sometimes err in supporting composers whose music has quickly faded away, but is continually broadening its base and expanding its repertoire.

I was director of the Proms from 1996 to 2007, and my predecessors had only very recently considered Leonard Bernstein’s music to be classic enough to appear. But there had been experiments with unknown genres and composers, such as the band Soft Machine, which performed in 1970. During my time, we introduced the music of Stephen Sondheim for the first time. There was also a fuss when Bob Marley songs were featured in a late-night concert by the King’s Singers, but the audience recognized the quality and swallowed it.

Now the barriers between musical genres are breaking down more and more, and that should be embraced by the Proms. In my time, our late-night concerts had rather symbolic nods to folk music and jazz. Since then we have had Blue Peter balls and Doctor Who balls, attracting new audiences. Current concerts feature a wide range of non-Western music, allowing the Proms to develop an audience that can enjoy them alongside fresh and powerful tales from Beethoven and Brahms, Mahler and Bruckner. If anything, the Proms should now expand their base of music and performers even further, reflecting the recent seismic shifts in our cultural life.

Pollard dismissed this year’s gig-focused concert, but the fact is, music from the gaming industry can be a springboard for a new generation to learn classical music. Scheduled for August 1, the ball will introduce players to a live orchestra that, at a time when arts education is chronically underinvested, seems deeply important. It will also help support the creativity of a new range of composers.

Pollard rightly suggests that it’s all about balance, in which case he needs to look at the whole of this year’s richly varied program and see how deftly it blends the classics and the new. He can hardly accuse the BBC of abandoning the basic repertoire when BBC television and Radio 3 have already, in the first days of the season, relayed Verdi’s Requiem and British classics by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton, alongside a contemporary piece by Huw Watkins, all superbly performed.

For generations, the Proms have been committed to the highest standards of repertoire and quality, with the necessary rehearsal time. Today, there is a growing realization that this investment in our musical life, in UK orchestras, ensembles and soloists, is made possible by an enlightened funding system. The need to maintain this commitment to our musical life should be the real lesson of this year’s season.

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