Tag Archives: Royal Albert Hall

BBC Proms, a branding disaster

21 Aug

BBC PRoms 2013It is this time of the year when eager press releases accompanied by expertly Photoshopped images start coming out of the Beeb’s press office. They concern the now regular Proms in the Park format that is happening concurrently with the actual last night at the Royal Albert Hall. Over time they have stretched the meaning of classical to breaking point by inviting musical stars and entertainers. This year a pair of old timers return, Miss Jenkins and Mr Boe. They endemically crop up as the star attraction at one of those arena classical pap nights and it still makes me wonder if the Proms brand means anything for the BBC.

They keep promoting it as the premier classical summer festival (this year with an execrable campaign using the RAH as a glorified egg cup, see below) and then they contradict their own promotion by inviting popera stars to head those outdoor events.

It is a very contradictory statement by the Proms bosses and it opens them up to questions of good management of a valuable brand that is slowly losing its hardwon reputation and meaning. There is always a discussion of what the programming of the season has to contain and how it should embrace the real world outside the classical bubble. By inviting Boe and Jenkins the BBC organisers are essentially making a statement of non trust to the very genre they promote. In the past they had no issues selling out the Hyde Park event with either Angela Gheorghiu, Bryn Terfel and Placido Domingo headlining. Now it seems they depend year after year on popular entertainers as if admitting defeat that bona fide classical stars can’t sell out the large outdoor venues.

Ultimately isn’t the Proms brand about promoting and disseminating classical music to the widest possible audience, why do they feel the need to call on to people without the training or essential credentials? Boe and Jenkins will claim to have performed for the Proms without ever having to step on the platform of the Royal Albert Hall, a veritable own goal by the Proms bosses. 

When singers like Joyce DiDonato, who is singing for the RAH last night, do so much to bring a new audience to classical music and opera, an organisation of the size and influence of the BBC is seen as cowardly and predictable.

Kicking the Prommers to the ground is poor form

17 Jul

BBC PRoms 2013Reading performing artists putting down their own audience never makes any sense to me. Chris Gillett wrote a blog post for Sinfini (the Universal Music financed quasi blogging effort. Apparently tasked to demystify classical music…). He  explains his dislike for older prommers and their rudeness. I have mentioned many times my experience from the two Proms seasons I worked at the Royal Albert Hall as a Steward on Twitter. And I will make it clear that I am not the biggest fan of the ridiculous “sporting” element introduced by the hunt/cattle run for the front of the arena. A lot of the hoggers are smelly, unpleasant people who are there more to be seen than to listen. But they are a minority. His assertion that by abolishing the season passes the crowd would change or be magically younger/different is naive if not ridiculous. Who has the time to go and queue for the Proms? Only the unemployed, students or the retired (sons and daughters of oligarchs are invited to Grand Tier Boxes). So the demographic for the front few rows will look identical season tickets or not.

His conclusion: Now, I’m no great fan of any movement that attempts to make concert-going more appealing to the young at the expense of the middle-aged and elderly. Why should the young have everything their own way? But I really think the Proms needs a shake-up, to break the stranglehold the ageing, die-hard prommers now have on this extraordinary festival.
Seems totally over the top and verging on the disingenuous.

The Proms may have many faults, including a ridiculous sense of self-worth but at least they are truly accessible with the £5 standing promming tickets. And I have taken the opportunity to see many great orchestras and soloists over the last decade for such a small charge. As a Steward I had to intervene many times when arena prommers verbally abused foreign visitors for not following their arcane rules, but this small minority that bullies newcomers exists in any closely-knitted group.  Using such a minority as a shorthand to project our own ideas about what an audience has to be, leads us to some very predictable conclusions.

Classical music circles get into a navel gazing mode rather frequently when they start pondering the older age of their audiences and overall access.The age of the audiences should not be the main object of fascination but the size. Orchestras, opera houses and concert halls should strive to bring in many people from whatever age and background. The senseless pursuit of a mythical group of youngsters that will instantly fall in love with classical and opera is a construct perpetuated by the very people who are meant to help make venues all-embracing in reach. Maybe the ulterior motive is that talking about age is much more convenient because it absolves them from responsibility in looking into their price structures and ticket distribution. Because the  main two reasons for not going to concerts is the failure of music education in schools and the unreasonable ticket prices at certain venues. With the recession biting, potential audiences are very price sensitive.

The Proms with offering nearly 1.000 tickets for £5 at every concert are giving a low cost entry to a world of music seen as unreachable or elitist. Can we celebrate this very fact and refrain from giving in to victimising the faithful punters that attend every season? Despite a wholly unsuitable venue and scorching temperatures the Albert Hall is near sold out for most events. Lets stop this self hating nonsense and wish Mr Gillett good luck the next time he steps on that stage as a comprimario or as a plaything for a new composer. Lets spread the love of good music and stop these nonsensical divisions and finger-pointing.

Update

It seems that pointing out to C G that ignoring the fact that he offended far too many people by being petty and presumptuous and avoiding to respond to any tweets addressed to him…made him unfollow and block me on Twitter. A little hissy fit that makes a great addition to this silly little attention seeking attempt from the grubby Sinfini site.

CG Twitter

No, Andrew Mellor I’m not privately educated and I’m not dreading concert halls and opera houses

16 Jul

 

Andrew Mellor wrote this scrappy piece for the New Statesman  clutching at straws on how to substantiate his own prejudices of what classical/opera audiences are like. The main thrust of his argument is the adverts in a BBC Proms programme advertising private tuition etc. He seems to go on some semiotic reading of the adverts and awarding the crown of elitism and high snobbery to the audience. His views are so far apart from my experience that I feel compelled to shortly write about them.

I grew up in Athens and was schooled there, the only fancy paid for tuition I received being my rather good English language school (for two hours after school, three times a week). Went to a few opera and ballet performances with my best friend to the disapproval of my parents. That was mainly due to the beautifully appointed Athens Concert Hall (Megaron) and its very cheap student standby scheme which we took advantage of to see some wonderful shows. It was a way in to a world I had very little contact with through my parents or my school (which had only rudimentary music classes, mainly dealing in history).

When I moved to the UK fifteen years ago I went to pop concerts, ballet and theatre. Never felt that any venue was out of reach or that the audience was unfriendly. Eventually I went to some classical and opera performances and again never felt patronised or awkward. When I took on a summer job at the Royal Albert Hall as a Steward for the 2000 Proms, it was a great opportunity to be exposed to a huge variety of events and more importantly the love of the musicians and the Hall’s staff for music.  This was an eye opener, being part of what felt like a big family, one night being lucky enough to see Tasmin Little with Simon Rattle and the next Petra Lang and Kurt Masur. Never for a second did the adverts in all the programmes that I read felt as a coded cry of the upper echelons of society telling me I was not welcome. What I felt being around all the other Stewards at the RAH and the audience was a great love and respect for the art form and the chance to be exposed to greatness, it had nothing to do with social rank or how I pronounced my vowels. In fact the only time I was exposed to unpleasantness was during a concert by Oasis and their horrible audience.

In the last five years I have been taking my partner to lots of performances of music, dance and opera and he possibly would be the one to confirm that we have never felt unwelcome to any venue. Even if some contemporary opera doesn’t totally rock his boat, he takes a lot of pleasure from the sojourns and deepening his knowledge of repertoire and musicians.

Additionally the advances in social media, the exchanges with orchestras, venues and artists have created a much tighter, warmer bond. We all know that opera and classical will remain in the fringes of mainstream culture, but orchestras like the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and many more are using their resources to promote their work and to make appreciation of it as wide as possible. The fact that the LSO will not be as popular as any given pop/rock act doesn’t make them a failure.

Most of the time the concept of exclusivity and high cost is foisted on those venues, but it’s far from the truth. Tickets for the LSO at the Barbican can be had from £8 and that is to listen to one of the most accomplished orchestras in the world with some very illustrious conductors and guest artists. I have been to many concerts where the food consumed at the cafe was more expensive than the tickets for this apparent elitist pursuit.

Equally there is no buzz like it when a favourite opera singer has a great night. No matter if I’m occupying a top price seat at Stalls or a £15 one at the gods of the Royal Opera House or ENO the deep sense of pleasure and satisfaction is the same.
Last week when I was watching Les Troyens from the cheapest seat in the House I was flanked by two people in the polar opposites of the audience. The lady on my right was wonderfully chatty and telling me about performances she had seen and what she was going to next. The gentleman on my left was clutching his opera companion with religious fervour while emanating the unpleasant smell of someone that hadn’t had a wash in a few days and refusing to engage with anyone around him. Was it the Royal Opera’s fault that this chap goes to performances and that he may put off some newcomers? Are newcomers to opera such scared, fragile little things that can’t fend for themselves? Those 5hours 22minutes spent in the company of those two people either side of me it was a metaphor for the larger world surrounding live performance.
There are the sweet, obliging, polite, warm hearted, generous people and then there are the less giving, passive aggressive, unpleasant individuals and anything in between the two. As in every other walk of life we learn to co-exist and trying to get on. When the calling of the great music is strong, nothing can mar the experience not even a very smelly, passive aggressive chap on my immediate left. So let’s stop victimizing the classical/opera circuit which is much more democratic and egalitarian than many other sections of British society. I am happy not to be part of an exclusive reception for the sponsors of a concert and I don’t feel excluded or let down, after all they subsidise my hobby. Live and let live.

PS The ultimate satisfaction I derive from my blogging and Tweeting activity is when one of my readers/followers decides to give opera or orchestral music a go. Sometimes it just takes that one visit and a love affair that lasts a lifetime begins. That is the very reason why I refuse to be negative for the future of “serious music” and opera, as long as there’s curiosity there will be audiences.

The Caruso complex / Rosenblatt Recital series: Juan Diego Flórez / Royal Albert Hall – 08 May 2012

10 May

I came away from this recital with contradictory feelings, Flórez indeed put a lot of bums on the seats of the Royal Albert Hall but did he in the process make too many concessions to “stadium opera”?

As I tweeted from there, the Royal Albert Hall what it misses in acoustics (and heavens knows some sections have abysmal sound and sightlines) makes up in atmosphere. The very idea of staging a solo recital in a cavernous space like the RAH has more to do with chutzpah than musical enjoyment. The RAH as a rent a night venue has given home in recent months to such classical luminaries as Russell Watson and Katherine Jenkins. Of course the PR and interviews leading up to the recital pointed to Pavarotti being the last tenor to sing a solo recital there (when JDF sang there also during the 2006 Proms). Mind you on two occasions I’ve attended recitals by Montserrat Caballe and Kiri Te Kanawa, but as the ladies had also a guest artist on stage, they don’t count in the narrow definition of solo recital.  Also another notable feature was the age of the audience, this was one of the most elderly audiences I’ve ever seen to either opera or a classical concert. And clearly not one used to the conventions of the genre, as we had numerous instances of flash photography and a few of premature or misplaced clapping. One thing is for sure, a large swathe of the crowd had never listened to Il Pirata. We even got the unusual sight of clapping for the departing orchestra at interval! Nevermind the PR angle and audience…was the evening any good?

The programme reads like a respectable operatic first half, if rather short on singing, while the second half was a zarzuela fest with a heavy dose of smaltz, that late in the career Pavarotti would have loved. From Stalls L Row 4 the sound of the orchestra was very patchy and the acoustic amplified the percussion to such an extent to cover most other instruments. The conducting felt uninspired throughout with the bel canto numbers played with lack of assurance and character.  JDF’s first aria was beautifully sang but distinctly underpowered, from time to time I had to struggle to listen to him and the silly clapping half way didn’t help.

His second aria from La scala di seta was delivered with much more expressive brio and a stronger, more focused projection. He is a Rossini specialist after all.

Then we moved on to Verdi, the orchestral playing of the Overture for Louisa Miller had nothing terribly distinctive about it. This orchestra totally flattened any differences between Bellini, Rossini and Verdi. To be honest I was mercifully waiting for JDF to return and sing Alfredo’s aria from Act 1 of La Traviata, a role that normally would not be within the narrow fach his roles occupy. This was JDF, the unknown quantity and he excelled his delivery was passionate and direct. His vocalising was on the lighter end of the scale but actually full of beauty and thought. I really hope that as his voice is maturing that he will have the chance to assume the role. He was impressive and one almost forgot the distant acoustic and the one poor soul from G Stalls that clapped half way…

After the interval the two zarzuela arias were truly first class. The first one was full of lust and the quest of love made impossible by the circumstances. His more animated expression really set the scene. The lyricism with which he delivered the lines: Son mosquitos que vuelan junto al que duerme y zumbando le obligan a que despierte / They are mosquitoes which fly over those who sleep, and buzzing, force them to wake up was all consuming. The second aria was equally impressive and allowed him to use a much more open tone, singing this celebratory piece full of exclamation and warmth.

After a castagnettes heavy intermezzo from La boda de Luis Alonso we moved on to the lighter than light part of the programme, or shall I call it the Three Tenor section?  Lehar and Brodzsky are such a cliche for this type of concert it was very disappointed that he felt the need to include them. They were executed nicely enough but I’d rather he had spent his time singing more Donizetti, as his final programmed aria from Rita (bizarrely the only time during the evening when he spoke to the audience, just to tell us that the widower in the opera is all too happy to be left alone) the singing was first class again, with a ringing high register and his little comedy acting flourishes that brought the music to life.  A deluge of applause followed with a lot of noise for encores…a very near approximation of a football stadium filled with pensioners.

He sang Ah! Mes amis from Fille and La Donna è mobile from Rigoletto  and topped up with that Three Tenor favourite…Granada. The encores were truly predictable and played on to the audience, but who can actually blame him. This was a night of audience favourites, with an artist at the top of the game, trying to be listened to in a barn. He pleased his fans to no end and even managed to be audible without showing any signs of strain.

I will make sure to add any videos that the good people at Rosenblatt Recitals put out on YouTube in the coming week or so (as there was a camera recording at the back of the Arena on the night).

BBC Proms you have the most expensive booking fee in London

20 Apr

Tada! Fanfare and pomp and Roger Wright the director of the Proms (or rather officially Controller, R3 & Director BBC Proms) presented yesterday the new season of the Proms.

Unfortunately the jubilation for the announcement is clouded by the booking fees that they will charge anyone prudent enough to book in advance. Surely if the well subsidised and much accused for being expensive and exclusive can afford not to charge a booking fee, the Proms and the Royal Albert Hall charge 2% of the transaction amount plus £1 per ticket up to a maximum of £10!  This exorbitant fee makes the Royal Albert Hall a touch cheaper than the hideously priced Ticketmaster. For instance three tickets for The Phantom of the Opera would cost £159 with Proms pricing while the Ticketmaster price is a more robbing £163.50. Of course the main difference between an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and the Proms is one of them is subsidised by tax called euphemistically a licence fee…it seems the Proms are a licence for the Royal Albert Hall to make a killing on fees (as they do for the rest of the year). As one of the biggest block bookers of the Hall couldn’t they come up with a better arrangement on the booking fees? If most classical and opera venues can offer the same service for under £3 how dare they ask for £12?

It is impossible to find out how much putting up the Proms costs, due to the BBC’s  hiding behind Sphinx like statements to freedom of information requests. But it is estimated to cost around £10million*

It is hugely disappointing to allow the host venue to capitalise at such a degree on the back of the Proms. Everyone would have been more understanding if the ticket prices had gone up a bit to cover the administration costs. To their credit the RAH responded with a couple of tweets, attributing their high fees to their lack of public subsidy. As for the Proms twitter folk they just think taking a pound off the standard booking fees of the RAH is enough. Dear readers what do you think, is it appropriate a public body like the BBC, using public tax money to put up this festival to gouge us with such fees?

*Just the broadcast of the festival cost £3.7m and they employed 145 staff (2008 season numbers, published in 2010 NAO report)

Read More

BBC’s Annual report 2011/12 http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/pdf/bbc_ar_online_2010_11.pdf

National Audit Office looking at spending for Proms: http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/0910/bbc_coverage_of_major_events.aspx

Overgrown path blog on the Proms cost: http://www.overgrownpath.com/2009/08/what-price-bbc-proms.html

David Pountney 1 – Norman Lebrecht 0

17 Jan

This morning a link to a blog post by David Pountney, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera as a response to as usual baseless and naive article by Norman Lebrecht in Standpoint Magazine (who buys it, I wonder), grabbed my attention.

Any classical/opera world followers on Twitter are too well versed in Mr Lebrecht’s attention seeking, ambulance chasing ways. I am truly grateful that someone of Pountney’s stature took a stand and publicly denounced his lazy assumptions about funding. He makes a number of great points about the nature of the opera business and of art in general. I totally agree with all his points. Additionally, pure commercial enterprises have very rarely produced good quality opera programming. Utter the name Raymond Gubbay (a favourite of the Royal Albert Hall, old Norman, isn’t he?) to any opera lover and you will see 😉

Bravo to DP and hope all the readers of my blog will read his post.

David Pountney’s Adventures of the Spirit blog post

Norman Lebrecht’s Just say no to State Funding article (watch out for the tulip metaphor!)

Read More

The new season announcement by the WNO

Follow the hilarious Fake Norman Lebrecht, much better than the real thing!

Glitz, glamour and football atmosphere / Prom 29: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra + Gustavo Dudamel / Royal Albert Hall – 05 August 2011

6 Aug

Programme

Mahler
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’
Miah Persson soprano
Anna Larsson mezzo-soprano
National Youth Choir of Great Britain
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel conductor

To see the Bolívars in action for the first time is to witness a new type of orchestra but also a different type of audience. The Royal Albert Hall was shearing with warmth from the audience and the intensity of the players. Surely miles away from the civil service ethos of the BBC Symphony Orchestra that provides the fillers between visiting orchestras to the Proms.

In many ways the theatricality (and if you ask me, Mahler’s vulgar use of percussion) was a good fit for the fire that burns in the belly of this young orchestra and its elite line up. Possibly reading elite sounds strange in the context, but the members are selected through a national ongoing national programme in Venezuela that involves 250.000 members (FESNOJIV). Making the line up must be an arduous process but one that galvanises the young performers to grow and perform their way to international stardom.

This was the one Prom that sold out in minutes as music lovers and frequent Prommers felt the need to be baptised in the holy musical water that seems to be the reputation of the Bolívars, indeed it seems that people queued outside for 22 hours in the hope to nab a close enough pitch to the front of the arena. As an ex employee of the RAH, two things we cannot underestimate is the love of the Prommers for music and the auditorium’s capacity to flatten it with its warehouse like resonant acoustic. Tonight the Prommers screamed out their love for the orchestra with the kind of intensity one would witness at a pop concert or a football match…think rapturous applause for Simon Rattle and multiply by ten.

Now how was the Mahler, you’d ask. And if you have been reading this blog or following me on Twitter you will know my feelings of cool detachment and cold sweat that normally take me over. Symphony No2 has a lot of elements that I have disliked, the overblown over mannered throw in the sink writing is really not in my taste. And it is a hard old slog to live through 90 minutes of an exaggerated, intellectualised suffering and redemption Mahler-style. The kind of demonstrative look at me anguish and joy that I grew up to disregard as a central European trait that I had very little time for. I am afraid I have to say once more Mahler failed to move me on the whole, despite the admittedly sensitive vocal writing and intricacy of the orchestration. It just feels the kind of work that is there to display to everyone what a great composer you are but doesn’t know how to be economical within its own limits.

The opening three movements were beaming with glistening string playing that brought out the drama and the artifice to the fore. Dudamel’s concentration and conducting from memory was impressively focused on communicating with the orchestra (including conducting a brass section up in the gods of the RAH’s Gallery through a video link). Unfortunately what really marred the experience was the hit and miss acoustic from H Stalls, that was at the same time reflective and very shallow, making the almost bucolic themes by woodwind and strings seem like happening next doors. And of course another annoyance is having the Loggia boxes behind the Stalls…which meant that a lovely lady behind me thought it was a good time to poor a large glass of wine during a very hushed passage…thank you madame, hope it was tasty!

And then the fourth movement came about and here come Miah in a charcoal embroidered net curtain and Anna in one of the curtains from the boxes. A few minutes in an Arena Prommer received a text message, which I would think will be his/her eternal damnation by the closely knit microcosm of the season pass holders. Dudamel’s conducting did brng out the orchestras innate sense of rhythm at the more dance derived parts of the score ( a touch of a tarantella here, a touch of a waltz there) but somehow did not feel the connection between the individual parts as close as it could have been. The strife for speed and musicality maybe took over the need for a unified structure. And here I will declare my love for the performance of Anna Larsson, whose O Roschen rot! was enchanting and beautifully judged. I can imagine a lot of singers would really go on overdrive trying to make themselves audible, she used her sizeable instrument at a very low, barely audible level and brought us to a climax of full throated delivery over the enveloping strings. It was warm and absolutely gorgeous.

The fifth movement brought us Miah’s singing which worked beautifully with the lovely phrasing of the choir but to me it seemed unexceptional. Even though she has a beautiful voice with strident colour, this time round it just didn’t transport us to the afterlife. But it was funny observing a young gentleman in the front row of the choir taking the crown from Gustavo as the biggest hair on stage, with his blonde explosion of curly hair!

I feel very privileged to have had the chance to be there this evening, despite my general misgivings on Mahler’s emotional sincerity and his overblown aesthetic that doesn’t resonate with me. A huge thanks to Guy for allowing me to pop in and listen to this incredible experimental orchestra and its charismatic leader. A heady experience that brought together buttoned up 19th century Germany and Venezuelan fire in a Victorian community Hall with the acoustics of a retail shed by the M25.

Do watch it tonight on BBC 2 (I’ll surely be recording it while being out and about in Devon) and do listen again on iPlayer and on repeat on Radio 3, Tuesday 9th at 14.00. Let me know what you thought!

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