It was being whispered last week at the first of the two Berlin Philharmonic appearances at the Proms that attendance across the board this year has been 94%. If this is true, and is maintained to the end, it is a staggering achievement. Every year for the last fifteen or so, the press office at the BBC has put out ever-increasing claims about the number of people who have bought tickets, in such a way that I never quite believed them. The increase year on year was somehow too reliable. But this would trump them all by far.
I wonder why it has happened, if it has. In some ways this year’s season has involved less fuss and fanfare than previously – fewer themes lying behind the programming; fewer anniversaries to make one feel guilty about not having noticed or cared (and the main one, Chopin, being unresponsive); the atmosphere generally more relaxed. If this has led to the kind of better-balanced programmes that the public has wanted to hear, then there is a lesson worth learning. I’m not sure that this has been the case – surely we all cherry-pick and find music to suit us – but something has made more people turn out, possibly more regularly than ever before. Of course it may be nothing more than that the pound is weaker than a year ago and there are more tourists around.
Whatever the reason I would like to put down a marker that these statistics are one in the eye for all those doomsayers, most notably Norman Lebrecht, who ten to fifteen years ago made money out of saying that classical music was dying. Their gloom was dished out under various headings. The collapse of the CD market was the favourite: the big names were going under, priceless reputations and blue-chip repertoires were about to be lost to the civilised world; though in the event all that happened was that the long-established companies who had ruled the roost for decades were reduced, and traditionalists didn’t like it. The actual number of CDs recorded and released shot up; and because they were now generally much cheaper to buy, more were sold.
Then there was the ‘there is no classical music in our schools’ scare, which some were quick to say was indicative of how the country was going to the dogs, predicting it would lead to a collapse of interest in young people going to classical music concerts. In fact, just as with the humbling of the old CD market, there was some truth in the detail – and there is still cause for concern about how music is taught in our schools – but it didn’t lead to fewer people at concerts. Nor to fewer teenagers hoping to study at our conservatoires. You don’t need to have studied Fine Art at school to want to visit an art gallery, or to have read Shakespeare before going to the theatre (though it helps). Going to a Prom is not dissimilar from walking into the National Gallery for an hour or two, and needn’t cost much more. In the last fifteen years it has been quite clear that more people than ever want to listen to classical music, either at home or in the concert hall, and certainly there has been more and more of it to choose from.
Attendance at those Berlin Philharmonic concerts must have been 100%. I don’t know how the authorities decide when the arena and the gallery are ‘full’, but I couldn’t see the floor of the arena for people. On the other hand the crowd for the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the 8th couldn’t have been more than 65%. This enormous difference in popularity seemed a little unfair. Of course the Berlin orchestra is probably the leading ensemble of its type in the world, and Rattle is more loved here than Jiří Bělohlávek, good as he is. And the BBC SO must have been listened to by a lot of people already by this time in the season. It was either the programme or the fact that the schools had gone back between the two concerts; though if it was the programme the difference between Mahler’s First Symphony and Bruckner’s Seventh surely isn’t that great.
Maybe the insistent drive for yet bigger and better and more, that has so palpably underlain the Proms’ thinking in recent years, has finally gone too far and the series is a week too long? There is a parallel here with the cricket season. There is always more, never a retrenchment. One can only hope that this last week of the Proms doesn’t spoil the overall box-office average, because it has been a great season and these figures will pay tribute to it.
This article was published in the Spectator, dated 18th September 2010. It was later announced by the Proms’ press office that attendance had been 92% across the board: still very remarkable.