What’s all the fuss about the Ibiza Prom? First, it’s a late night Prom, and late night Proms have traditionally (or as recent tradition goes) ventured into other areas of musical endeavour. Second, terms like classical and non-classical for some are increasingly moribund. Music is either good or bad, although the usefulness of these terms is also debatable. Hovering above all of this is of course the slippery question of taste. Third, what’s wrong with experimentation? But perhaps a fourth point needs some attention: the Ibiza Prom, or ‘Late Night With Radio 1’ as its official title goes, appears to be more about the changing fortunes of Radio 1 itself. The problem is with declining interest in Radio 1, not the Proms, and this classical music festival is in the unlikely situation of breathing life into a pop music station.
Leaving this last issue aside, some of the statements made about negative responses to the Ibiza Prom reignite perennial issues in classical music. Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong, the ‘curator’ of the event, has said that, “Just to stay stuck in the past or stay stuck within rigid guidelines, whatever you’re doing, you’ll struggle over a longer period of time”. This poses a problem unique to classical music, for if the past was abandoned we would be abandoning the works on which the history of western music was built – the music that by definition is classical precisely because it transcends history. And since there is a strong case that classical music in the globalised world should no longer be hidebound by the designation of ‘western’ other than to alert listeners to its historical trajectory, the oppressive association between classical music and the past deployed to make unfair claims about its ir/relevance is correspondingly redundant.
Tong’s statement needs some unpacking. What, for instance, does he mean when he says ‘to stay stuck in the past’, with or without ‘rigid guidelines’? (I assumes he accepts the occasional need for rigid bar lines…)
The overriding reason why classical music has endured is as a result of the way in which a score is brought organically to life each time it is performed, irrespective of whether the performer has adopted a revisionist or modernising approach to the text. Past, present, and future seem to dissolve during a performance. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Prom last week under Andris Nelsons, a gripping account of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, proved just this point and then some. Such concerts boldly highlight the undiminished vitality of the Proms and classical music.
Tong is not suggesting we stop listening to Beethoven. He is saying that something different needs to be offered by the Proms to revitalise it and, by implication I think, the entire classical music industry, to ensure its survival. What we should be doing is opening up experiences like the CBSO performance to new audiences, playing that sets the score ablaze as if for the first time. The methodologies for doing this are likely to be as varied as the Proms itself.
Still, Tong’s concern is surely wasted on this 120-year-old festival! Nevertheless, a number of thoughts are provoked by the Ibiza Prom. Perhaps the most glaring of all is the idea that classical music is a dead tradition. Contemporary classical music has always had problems relating to audiences; or, rather, audiences have experienced difficulty for whatever reason accessing new works. Some works that were spurned by audiences around the time of their premiere are undergoing late recognition. Minds are opening, hearts are being won.
Contemporary classical music is far from insular or locked in narcissistic relation to the past or its own kind. Think of Thomas Ades, who reimagined the orchestra as a techno machine in Asyla, the third movement of which is entitled (a little ironically, I think) ‘Ecstasio’. It topped the bill on Simon Rattle’s inaugural concert as principal conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002. A prime example, in other words, of one of the most distinguished cultural organisations in the world embracing alternatives. Examples of cross-pollination between classical music and other art forms – beyond, that is, the tawdry enterprise of ‘crossover’ – abound. You can say what you like, but the evidence will strike you down: contemporary classical music is far from dead.
Then there is the thought of classical music and audience development. The image comes to mind of a sea of grey hair in auditoriums listening to their tenth subscription concert. I’m not of that age group but I’ve felt increasingly offended for my elders. They attend concerts week-in, week-out, come rain or shine, and respond genuinely with considerable force in celebration of the music and performers. Yet they’re treated like superannuated members of society.
If classical music is to have a future, more young people need to get hooked before they too become grey or more pressingly before orchestras become a thing of the past. Funny that nobody ever says we need older people at raves. Rave culture doesn’t need older people in the way that classical music needs the young. Audience development is a box-ticking, stereotype-colluding ideology that for good or ill is primarily about financial sustainability. Ethical considerations about exclusion and alienation, certainly in popular discourse, come second.
It seems to me that more than other art forms, classical music addresses exclusion and alienation by reaching out to the younger and the youngest, putting instruments in their hands and inspiration in their hearts and minds. True, this is keyed to government funding criteria, but not always. Philanthropic or business-based funding still exists, even in the UK, for which there may be different criteria than those related to the subsidy regime. Clearly philanthropists and businesses trust the classical music world with their money. They’re not wrong. As a classical music geek, I benefit from their investment and commitment.
The fact remains that orchestras and the wider classical music world put their concern about education and social life into sustainable practice. Orchestras are rooted in their communities, often inextricable from the identity of cities. One cultural notion of the city might demand less the existence of a cathedral than a thriving orchestra. It’s precisely the sustainability they offer to city life – the regularity of concerts, the sense of annual renewal at the announcement of the next season, international relations through touring and guest artists – that somewhat proves the cliché of the beating heart.
If orchestras and the festivals that celebrate them are under threat it is not due to declining audience figures but to philistine governments and austerity. Events such as the Ibiza Prom may be one way of introducing the Proms to new audiences. Or the Ibiza Prom might just introduce that audience to the Ibiza Prom. It’s not snobby or superior to suggest that, for the people who go to Ibiza, the world of Bach and Bruckner is and always will be massively irrelevant. That’s fine. It’s a matter of taste. Supposing some Ibiza veterans (some of whom will form a burgeoning crowd of greying heads) attend the Ibiza Prom and subsequently try one of the more conventional Proms. I can’t deny the likelihood of this happening, though I am pretty much convinced it will be very low indeed. I hope this harsh conviction is proved wrong. But at the end of the day, the Ibiza Prom is self-defeating because it has taken up a slot that could have been occupied by other, maybe alternative, classical practitioners who view working with the past a liberating rather than limiting force. It’s a risky business working with the past. Riskier, that is, than anticipating the future.
Late Nate with Radio 1 is on at 22:15 Wednesday 29 july 2015. Ninety-odd other concerts are also taking place around this one.