News Column

Composers condemn 'patronising' BBC for ditching new music from TV Proms

September 3, 2014

Charlotte Higgins

Since 1927, when the BBC took over the Henry Wood promenade concerts, the Proms have been Britain's most important champion of new music, commissioning countless works from composers that have been experienced by an open-minded audience that, in the words of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, is "in for anything".

But this year, those watching selected Proms on BBC2 and BBC4 have been confronted by a mystery: the case of the disappearing contemporary music.

Prominent figures from the classical music world have united to condemn the excision of new music from the televised Proms. Susanna Eastburn, the chief executive of Sound and Music, the national agency for new music, said it was "a policy-by-implication which assumes that audiences won't like new music, and that it's not valued by the BBC".

Composers whose works were edited out of the televised Proms include Birtwistle, Jonathan Dove, Helen Grime, Roxanna Panufnik and John McLeod.

The new master of the Queen's music, Judith Weir, criticised the removal of the works. "This looks like a policy, and it is so sad." She said that by not televising the works the BBC was guilty of "ghettoisation" of contemporary music.

"It seems such an old-fashioned decision: there is a new spirit abroad," she said, arguing that there was a surge in young, talented composers of, and audiences for, contemporary music. The decision was, she added, out of step with the commitment the BBC makes to new music.

Fellow composer James MacMillan said there was "widespread shock among composers, publishers and performers".

Grime's piece Near Midnight was the only one cut from the televised version of the Prom in which it had appeared. The concert was given by the Halle under Sir Mark Elder, and included works by Beethoven, Berlioz and Elgar.

Though Grime's work is available to watch on iPlayer, she said she was "really disappointed and quite angry . . . it feels as if you have been put on one side . . . It's patronising to the audience to assume that people are going to switch off."

Birtwistle's three-minute Sonance Severance (2000) was not included in Friday night's televised version of the National Youth Orchestra's Prom, though it was available to watch online and is due to be included in a special programme celebrating both his and Maxwell Davies's 80th birthdays on 11 September.

"I don't care, it's their loss," said Birtwistle, branding the BBC's explanation for its removal as "crap". "I'm not surprised," he said. "I said before: 'I bet they don't play my piece.' That's what you get with the televisual . . . It shouldn't be like this, but I've had it all my life." He added that BBC Radio 3 was an important supporter of his music.

Dove's work Gaia Theory was commissioned by the BBC but then dropped from the televised version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's concert, which also contained works by Ravel and Mozart. He said: "It is disappointing . . . I write music that is approachable, and it's not intended for a ghetto, it's intended for people who like music."

A BBC spokeswoman said: "Sometimes, for various reasons - most notably scheduling - we have to omit certain works from the broadcasts. This has always been the case with the Proms on television. In making those choices, the Proms team and the commissioning editor have to bear in mind the audience and that newer works are often less familiar to them."

BBC Radio 3 broadcasts every Proms concert live and complete.


Sir Harrison Birtwistle, whose work was cut, said: 'I don't care; it's their loss'

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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