Full of Prom-ise: BBC Proms 2011 season

The day that the full guide to the BBC Proms season is announced has me in two minds each year: excitement at the prospect of so much music being performed and broadcast, with the attraction of a wealth of new music and contemporary pieces being played or premiered – tempered with the usual dismay that there’s so much run-of-the-mill mainstream classical fodder and not enough modern music.

I’m aware of the need for balance in music festivals: the need to please a wide range of audiences, to cater for the tastes of the mainstream-loving masses as well as the rampant modernists, the ecomonic imperative of maximising ticket-sales and making sure there are sufficiently-sized audiences to receive the performers when they walk onto the stage, combined with the need to cash in on the pulling-power of big-name performers as well as to be able to afford their fees. There are those concert-goers who love their classical canon, the Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart, those who adore their Wagner, and those who relish the cutting-edge contemporary works of living composers; most festivals like to broaden their appeal, to attract as many punters as they can. This is no place to launch into my usual bit-champing furore about crusading for the new in music, its importance in addressing vibrant issues of contemporary culture and forging new ways of engaging with ideas and values of our time and…well, more on this later.

So it was with a mixture of excitement and resignation that I clicked onto the BBC Proms website to view the complete run-down of this year’s concerts. This season, however, I found a way to stave off my disappointment: there’s a handy tab for ‘Living Composers‘ which lists all the Prom concerts featuring contemporary works, which means I don’t have to wade through the usual depressing dross of this-Beethoven-symphony or that-Brahms-piece in order to see, at a glance, what’s new. I don’t know whether this has skewed my usual view of the Proms season as too pandering-to-the-masses and not enough people-need-to-engage-with-contemporary-music. but this season seems pretty good from a modern music point of view. There’s Birtwistle, Volans, Gubaidulina, Reich, Dutilleux, Beamish, Holloway, Fitkin and others. I expect there’s plenty of the usual canon of pieces on the Popular Classics Carousel, but I’ve not had to trawl through them and depress myself, so that seems fine. Pascal Dusapin is a name new to me, and so the Proms offers the chance for this music-lover to widen their listening and find music that they’ve not experienced before, the chance to become enchanted or turned off by something new, and, assuming I listen to it on the radio, the chance to hear a live performance and discover it all for free (overlooking the cost of the licence fee, that is); what could be a more exciting function of a music festival than all that ?

This ‘Living Composers’ tab allows me to bypass the customary sinking feeling that accompanies trawling through lists of concerts featuring the same old same-old, and get straight to the heart of what music festivals can do if they try: help audiences access music of their time, widen their listening experience and engage with composers who are telling them things about their own century.

I might have liked to have seen works by other composers: Nico Mulhy, John Luther Adams, David Lang, Tarik O’Regan (although he had a Proms commission last year, so may be being rested), and others; but one can’t be too choosy.

It looks promising…

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