Al is not the problem

I have to confess that the annual orgy of complaints about the BBC Proms always strikes this American transplant as absurd and hard to comprehend. Say what you will, it is an extraordinary international feast of great music played by the world’s greatest orchestras, and one that, thanks to the unique symbiosis between the performing and broadcasting organizations involved, reaches tens of millions of listeners and viewers world wide. Not only is it a great festival, it is great for music that so much of it can be seen on television and heard on radio and that almost every concert is reviewed and discussed in a wealth of publications. It is classical music as a central part of the cultural life of a great and vibrant city. I even like the Last Night. Everyone I know likes the Last Night.

Also, I think it’s unfortunate that bashing the Royal Albert Hall is such an integral part of the Prom tradition. If one had never been to a concert, you’d think it was the official concert hall of Hell itself. It’s a wonder anyone shows up. Is it as acoustically perfect as the Concertgebouw? No, but I’ve heard dozens and dozens of concerts there and never thought the acoustics were a problem, although there is quite a variance in sound around the hall. Is it as plush and comfy as halls like the one in Lucerne? Of course not, and it is often too hot, but I think the rough and ready nature of the venue is good for classical music. We shouldn’t only be playing in luxurious venues (and if you want luxury, you can get a box).

So, other than perhaps upgrading the air conditioning (again!), I think that spending much money on the Albert Hall is rather pointless. The Proms are successful, they’re culturally relevant and they’re wildly popular. When you think of the 111 million pounds spent on the Festival Hall, you have to wonder- is it really worth spending all this money to make the best of a building that will never be, and in this case doesn’t need to be, perfect?

On the other hand, there are countless cities across Britain that suffer from an appalling lack of decent facilities for music. Think how many new smaller halls could have been built with the money that went into the Royal Festival Hall. Back in America, my old high school had it’s own auditorium, used for all the musical groups and theater. It was extremely cheap to build, but had knock-out acoustics, as many of these school halls do. It sat about 500, but I’ve seen HS auditoriums that hold 1500. What if there was a major push to build economically designed but acoustically excellent small halls at schools across the country? Too many young people are stuck playing in terrible venues that should never be used for music. Just at the age when young musicians should be getting a taste of the thrill of performance, they’re instead fighting to overcome ghastly and discouraging acoustics. The marvelous and celebrated Kent County Youth Orchestra, which I’ve conducted regularly since moving here, plays in a dreadful leisure centre in Maidstone with dire acoustics and where the smell of chlorine from the pool permeates the air. I’ve conducted in several of these “multi-purpose” leisure centre halls (Newport, Wilmslow and many others)- the acoustics are always horrible, and everything about them is rather depressing and dreary. Whether it’s a run out by a BBC orchestra or a concert by a local youth orchestra, amateur band or chamber series, it is in smaller cities that most of the country has its only chance to sample live classical music and the venues simply aren’t up to it.

Look at the situations for two orchestras I work with regularly- the Surrey Mozart Players give most of their concerts in the Electric Theatre in Guildford. It’s an attractively converted old generating station with a nice café. However, it has three huge problems-

1-       There is no air-conditioning at all, which makes spring and summer concerts rather miserable evenings. Some regular players have stopped doing the June concerts

2-       The acoustics are pretty dire

3-       There aren’t enough seats for us- we could sell significantly more tickets and generate a lot more revenue in a bigger space.

On top of this, as a multi-purpose venue, we have to share with so many groups that we can no longer get enough dates. This is in spite of the fact that the orchestra gave the opening concert when the venue opened. Guildford used to have a separate concert hall, but it was condemned before my arrival. The council has been waiting for costs to drop before building a new one! Don’t hold your breath- costs don’t drop. Meanwhile, all of Guildford’s musical groups are suffering from a lack of space and facilities.

Then there is Stratford-upon-Avon’s own international professional band, Orchestra of the Swan. OOTS is a major success story- it’s been making its first recordings and getting significant national recognition right in the midst of the whole current economic downturn. Stratford now has a musical resource worthy of standing alongside the RSC, but we don’t have a hall- the orchestra’s home venue is another multi-purpose (a term which means “good for everything except music”) theatre. It’s not horrible, but if you hear the band in the acoustically perfect Town Hall Birmingham, you get a pretty stark sense of what Stratordians are missing out on. Fifteen years ago, Stratford didn’t have an orchestra that was worthy of a great hall- now it does. How do we get one built?

Maybe I’m just a little worked up about this from my years of misery working in the astoundingly bad Vert Auditorium in Pendleton, Oregon but I really think that if culture is going to be a part of every community, we need to focus on having great venues for culture in every community. The Vert could have been made good for relatively little money, but never was. Instead, we worked ourselves to death trying to make a great sound in a room with way too much carpet, playing on a stage without enough light, to an audience that had to form scrums to fight over who got to use the loos at intermission.

Patron bathroom at the Vert 24 Hours before my last OES concert

(Is this good for classical music? How do we connect with audiences if we can’t even get the plumbing connected)

On the other hand, just 50 miles away from Pendleton is the MacKenzie Theatre in La Grande, where my other former band playes- the Grande Ronde Symphony. It’s not a fancy venue, and it’s not a proper concert hall, but the sound is decent and the room is comfortable. As a result, people love going to concerts. In Pendleton, audiences told us again and again they came in spite of the building. In La Grande, they enjoy the atmosphere and the space. It’s a smaller town, and the orchestra has nowhere near the resources of the OES, but they sell tickets, and when a major orchestra like the Oregon Symphony comes through town, the community gets to really hear something special- a first rate orchestra making a sound you’d never hear in Portland, playing in a more intimate acoustic. When the Oregon Symph came out during my tenure, the musicians kept saying how much fun it was to play in such a great little hall. Again- it wasn’t a luxurious or expensive venue. It was just intelligently built.

What a pity in so many small and medium sized communities that it is simply impossible to hear a concert that gives any decent sense of what an orchestra, chorus or quartet is supposed to sound like. Rather than tart up the Albert Hall, surely we could build 20, 50 or 100 new small concert halls across Britain, ranging in size from 200-1000 seats that would give local and national groups a change to be heard all across the nation in conditions that, while not perfect, are at least not actually hostile.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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2 comments on “Al is not the problem”

  1. Peter

    Well-made point Ken. It is hard to find anything but good things to say about the Proms. It is the one moment in the year when classical music feels mainstream. The millions who attend, listen or watch on Radio and TV is an audience beyond the wildest dreams of most Uk concert promoters. For a sense of occasion and the reassurance that classical music is not a dying, irrelevant art-form, the Proms are a great boost to confidence. They are expertly put together, attract the super-stars of the profession and combine gentle populism with some real adventure. It is the Holy Grail of concert programming. What’s not to like. The broadcast quality is so high that the vaguaries of the acoustic hardly are noticed by listerners at home.

    But ….and it is a small but, you can say that investment in small halls in smaller places could equally apply to the resources spent on the artists too. The Proms are so much bigger than any other festival and get such a high profile in the media that you could easily believe it was the only music festival in Britain during the summer. In fact there are many, and the BBC do cover them – yet simply by weight of presence, the Proms trump the lot.

    That is not an argument for diminishing the Proms in any way, and the Uk’s provincial orchestras have been startling in their quality when they have appeared at the RAH this time around. tne question remains, how do you turn the adventure-hungry Proms audience into an army of all-year round concert-goers? Classical music can become a ticked box like everything else. Go to Prom – done that! But if it is truly to be mainstream, classical music shouldn’t be ghetto-ised into one huge festival in the public imagination. So please, Proms audience, take a look at what is happening near you in the coming weeks. That’s not just a plea to go to big halls for big concerts – there’s a truly amazing amount of good music happening in very small places.


  2. Kenneth Woods

    Amen, Peter! Very well said. In theory, the small venues ought to be developing new viewers and listeners and attendees for the Proms and the Proms ought to be spewing out newly-enthused classical fans who return to their home towns with a new passion for music. The system could work so much better if there were more great-sounding small halls in the country. They don’t cost much to build- it’s mostly a matter of mindset, and not treating acoustics as a luxury.

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