The Proms is over for another season. It was my first as a member of the Radio 3 family and I’m a bigger fan than ever. Here’s why.
It’s a journey. Over 80 concerts leading audiences (nearly a third of a million tickets were sold for the 2011 season) through the riches of the classical repertoire. As a member of the team, I can’t overstate the thrill of being able to attend so many of the concerts. And my musical knowledge (pitiful to begin with, I’ll admit) has been expanded massively (go on, ask me anything).
It’s a massive event. Classical music’s Glastonbury. This year’s Beethoven cycle – all the symphonies from Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – was momentous and the the collision with the Olympics and Paralympics at the Last Night felt absolutely right.
It’s accessible. £5 for a standing ticket and never sold out. They call it the Proms because you can walk right up. And it’s been like that since the beginning. It’s really the whole point of the season. You should try it.
It’s amazingly vivid radio. The best bit, of course. Every single concert is broadcast live on Radio 3. An enormous enterprise requiring a permanent encampment of trucks outside the Hall (some of them are on the telly, too, of course, if you like that sort of thing).
It’s online. Properly. And the BBC’s seven-day window means that a visit to the web site during the season will typically bring you forty or fifty works (in sparkling, unprocessed HD Sound, natch) to listen to. A kind of rolling window on the repertoire that no other music festival can provide (all gone now, sadly, but these highlights will be around for a while).
It’s adventurous. Since the very beginning, the Proms has hosted new works and new artists. Since the time of Director William Glock in the Sixties, the festival’s gone further and hosted works and events that would rarely have been seen anywhere else. This continues. 2012’s celebration of John Cage saw the Hall filled with cactuses and happy crowds wandering the streets of West London in procession, for instance.
It’s all about the young people. Youth orchestras, bands and choirs were all over the programme this year. It was thrilling to hear the big works revisioned by this army of young musicians from around the world (personal youth highlight: The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s dazzling Prom 29 with Anna Meredith’s Handsfree).
It’s joyful stuff. Some people, let’s face it, think classical music’s forbidding or hard work, or a bit snooty. An encounter with the Proms is quite the opposite, an antidote to all that: a happy, open and welcoming sequence of quite glorious events.
April 2022 UPDATE: the super-high-quality PromsXHQ stream went on to replace the standard Radio 3 online stream for all output and, if you listen on BBC Sounds these days you’re listening in this extraordinarily vivid quality.
Radio 3 have improved the quality of their live online stream – it’s an experiment called #PromsXHQ (‘XHQ’ for Extra High Quality). For the final week of the Proms you can listen at 320kb/s AAC: a big improvement but not, on the face of it, a big deal. I think it’s important, though.Why?
1. It’s awesome. I don’t want to gush and I didn’t expect to notice much difference, but the higher quality is stunning and addictive. I’m no expert – in fact, I have cloth ears – but the additional detail is genuinely gorgeous. Listening to the Berlin Phil last night (a quite awesome Prom, by the way), tiny details of the sound jumped out with an uncanny vividness – the mental scene created by the audio seemed more complete, more involving – a quite delirious experience, in fact. A simple but massively effective product enhancement.
2. It’s from the BBC. There are 320kb/s classical streams on the net but none is from the BBC. This experiment is engineered to BBC standards, from end-to-end, with BBC professionalism and passion for the output. That’s a big deal. Audiophiles and classical fans will want to try it for that reason alone (and I like the fact that it’s a change that came from the engineers, not from a focus group or the marketing department).
3. It’s a ‘game changer.’ This is the kind of incremental improvement that could change the behaviour of listeners. Once they’ve tried the improved service, listeners will want to drag computer and hi-fi closer together so they can run the 320 stream through their stereo or home cinema system. If that happens widely, manufacturers will make hi-fi quality players, streaming to your stereo will become a mainstream activity, players will be incorporated into high-end integrated devices, TVs and so on. It’ll be like when LPs went stereo or when CDs arrived.
People have been talking about being proud of the BBC lately and I clearly can’t join in, since I work there and I’m inevitably partial. But, as I still feel obliged to say, I’m new at the BBC and I went to work there in my late forties, from a life doing all sorts of other things and from many years of well-documented criticism of the Corporation.
So I do feel qualified to say that I am immensely proud of the BBC – and, in particular, of the amazing people I meet there. Big-hearted, open-minded, clever and funny people like those in Jon Jacob’s brilliant Proms video. Jon works for the BBC College of Journalism but he’s a musician and a Proms nut and he – like the orchestral performers featured – does this stuff for love. What’s not to be proud of?