Thursday 6th August saw excitement at the announcement of the BBC Proms 2020’s live season; two weeks of music performed in an empty Royal Albert Hall in the aim to bridge the gap between lockdown and normal concert life. However, for fans of new music, Thursday’s announcement will likely have been a disappointment, though not a surprise. With the BBC having mentioned the issue of orchestra sizes in earlier announcements, the vast array of early repertoire programmed does make sense, but also produces a rather analogous final two weeks. Furthermore, contemporary classical music provides many options for smaller ensembles, and so begs the question, why has all of this early repertoire been chosen?
The dearth of contemporary (or even relatively modern) music in the Proms programming has been a frequent source of criticism for the event, and 2020’s programme has made little exception to that trend. Save the repeat performances of Radio 1’s Ibiza Prom and 1Xtra’s Grim Symphony Prom, both featuring Jules Buckley and the Metropole Orkest, as well as the performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s unruly ‘Panic’, earlier this season, there has been little adventure into contemporary music in the 2020 Proms so far.
Fans of Beethoven, however, will likely be overjoyed that their cultural hegemony has been strengthened in the 250th anniversary of the composers’ birth. In a short live season of just two weeks of live events, Beethoven makes an appearance at a whopping five concerts, with two dedicated specifically to the man. Thus, if the veritable Beethoven banquet that was July to August’s archival season left you feeling peckish, tucking into the Prom’s brief live season will make a pig of you. For anyone else tired of the relentless over-programming of Beethoven’s work, this announcement feels more like gavage than a feast of the senses.
Rather than seize the opportunity presented by COVID 19’s disruption of the live Proms, now freed from the need to satisfy a paying audience (and their conservative tastes), to introduce audiences to new music and rarely performed innovative 20th century works, the organisers of the Proms have instead served up a programme dense with everyone’s favourite Common Practice period classics alongside a measly offering of new commissions and more recent works. The Classical music industry’s fixation on music of the past, in particular Beethoven, starves contemporary composers of performance opportunities and deepens the general public’s lack of interest in new music. For decades new music has been in a war of attrition, trapped in a negative feedback loop, audience’s lack of familiarity with new music discouraging venues from programming any.
Much of the contemporary music programmed includes now-known composers such as Copland and Whitacre, whose music can hardly be considered as revolutionary in 2020. Furthermore, at least two of the commissioned world premieres this season have been in fact been dedicated to Beethoven. Ian Farrington’s ‘Beethoveniana’, although a pleasurable listen and opening to the Proms, provided familiarity and ease to the listener. Some commissions and concerts, such as the London Sinfonietta’s concert, provide some hope for new music, however, all in all this programme proves to be rather unimaginative when it comes to providing a platform for many.
Of course, this over-programming is not restricted to the Proms, venues across the world planned concert series, exhibitions and (post-coronavirus) online events to celebrate Beethoven’s work. In an astonishing showcase of unimaginative programming, the Barbican, Southbank Centre, and Wigmore Hall, amongst others, all named their series ‘Beethoven 250’. Rob Deemer of the Institute for Composer Diversity, an organisation set up to promote music by composers from historically marginalised backgrounds, noted that from a survey of 120 top American orchestras’ planned 2020 programmes, 10.5% of all works programmed were by Beethoven. Whilst winning praise from many, this trend has equally come under fire. Columbia University academic Mariusz Kozak asked, ‘for most classical music institutions, what year is NOT a Beethoven year?’, whilst others have argued that this obsession with the work of a long-dead white European man is out of touch with the increasingly well accepted fact that the Classical music world is not adequately representative of female and BAME musicians.
Smith College musicologist Andrea Moore even went so far as calling for a year-long moratorium on Beethoven’s music proposing that we fill the (cavernous) hole left in programmes with new music, not just to promote up-and-coming voices in new music, but also to give us a chance to truly appreciate Beethoven’s work, hearing it anew with a rested set of ears.
Overall, yes, much of the programme will be an enjoyable listen and hopefully bring a large audience to the final two weeks of the festival, however, the BBC have missed out on the chance to provide an ever-needed platform to up-and-coming contemporary composers in these unusual times. Perhaps a new interest in contemporary Classical music would have provided an electrifying finale to such a respected festival, as well as aided the composers of today in such trying economic times.
2020’s Live Season:
Fri 28 Aug: Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven’s ‘Erioca’ Symphony, Copland, Whitacre and the world premiere Hannah Kendall’s Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama.
Sat 29 Aug: Jonathan Scott performs his own organ arrangements of Rossini, Mascagni, Dukas and Saint-Saens.
Sun 30 Aug: Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra perform Vaughan Williams, Adès, Elgar, Gabrieli, Kurtag and Beethoven.
Mon 31 Aug: The BBC Concert Orchestra host a night of Viennese operetta, performing Lehár, Strauss II, Straus, Kálmán and Heuberger.
Tue 1 Sept: Contemporary chamber ensemble London Sinfonietta.
Wed 2 Sept: Omer Meir Wellber conducts the strings of the BBC Philharmonic in a prom inspired by puppet theatre. Music by Haydn, Britten and a world premiere by Aziza Sadikova.
Thurs 3 Sept: Nicola Benedetti and Alina Ibragimova playing the Bach Double Violin Concerto with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Music also by Handel, Vivaldi and Avison.
Fri 4 Sept: Anoushka Shankar is joined by electronic music producer Gold Panda and the strings of the Britten Sinfonia.
Sat 5 Sept: Stephen Hough is soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 2, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard. Music also by Walker, Capperauld and Richard Strauss.
Sun 6 Sept: Laura Marling and 12 Ensemble perform music from the singer songwriter’s Mercury Prize-nominated album Song for Our Daughter.
Mon 7 Sept: TBC
Tue 8 Sept: Ryan Bancroft conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a most American Prom. Music by Martinu, Adams, Barber and Copland, with the world premiere of Rough Voices by Gavin Higgins.
Wed 9 Sept: Benjamin Grosvenor is soloist in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1 with a programme from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen that also includes music by Mozart and Ravel.
Thurs 10 Sept: Aurora Orchestra performs Beethoven 7 and a world premiere by Richard Ayres.
Fri 11 Sept: Isata Kanneh-Mason and Sheku Kanneh-Mason give a recital of music by Beethoven, Barber, Bridge and Rachmaninov
Sat 12 Sept: The Last Night of the Proms. Full details to be announced, but there will surely be traditional elements. South African soprano Golda Schultz joins the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its principal guest conductor Dalia Stasevska.
For more information on the live performances, visit: https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/rxxnc8/by/date/2020
Featured Image: Maximus McCabe-Abel