The Proms starts on Friday and one of the themes running through this season is World Orchestras. A few years ago such an idea would have been inconceivable. Back then the Proms was an essentially British music festival showcasing British orchestras and musicians. If foreign orchestras were invited – and it is only 50 years since the first non-British orchestra appeared at the Proms - it was because they offered something very special; that they were world-renowned, iconic and, above all artistically excellent. Even then, they often got a hard time. I recall the Leningrad Phil getting a frosty reaction when they delivered Rachmaninov 2 with the cuts that André Previn and the LSO had so pointedly reinstated on the iconic LP which effectively brought the work to the attention of the Great British Public. And I remember the message being sent around the prommers before the entry of The New York Phil (or was it The Cleveland?) to call out “What’s an orchestra like you doing in a place like this?” once they had made their entrance. (You could, of course, take that message either way, but those around me certainly felt that it was a criticism of the orchestra rather than of the Royal Albert Hall.)
This year, the organisers have looked around the world and picked a handful of western-style symphony orchestras to join in the fun. We have the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (playing Holst, Respighi, Balakirev, Handel and Mozart on 29th July), the China Philharmonic (playing Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Mussorgsky on 19th July), the Iceland Symphony (playing Schumann and Beethoven on 22nd August) , the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (playing Strauss, Elgar and Berlioz on 19th August), the Qatar Philharmonic (playing Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky on 7th September) , the Seoul Philharmonic (playing Debussy and Tchaikovsky on 27th August) and the Singapore Symphony (playing Glinka and Rachmaninov on 2nd September). It’s all part of a drive to make the Proms more “global”.
Up to now such orchestras would never have, in their wildest dreams, imagined being invited to perform at the Proms, but over the last few years there has been a shift away from musical excellence and a move towards “inclusivity”. Aware of the Proms’ image as one of the UK’s iconic events, organizers have sought to draw in an audience which is no longer solely focused on Classical music. Capitalising on its BBC connections, it has begun to incorporate other BBC franchises which have a global footprint. Thus we have CBBCs [children’s] Proms, Dr Who Proms, Gardening Proms and a Sports Proms, can a Top Gear Prom, a Masterchef Prom or a Strictly Come Dancing Prom be far off? And it doesn’t seem entirely inconceivable that a “Britain’s Got Talent” Prom might be added to the mix one day, provided the BBC manage to grab the franchise from the Commercial broadcasters. Musical connections have become ever more obscure, and in some quarters the classical music element is almost wholly overlooked. I notice an Asian publicity drive by one UK tourist agency which highlights not the Proms, but the Proms in the Park, as an event not to be missed, promoting it as a kind of soft-core Glastonbury without the tents or the astronomical admission fees.
And with the dilution of the Classical Music element has come the dilution of the Excellence tag; which is not to say that these foreign orchestras are not very good indeed, just that they are not the world beaters in musical excellent which hard-core prommers once took as the standard. The modern Proms audience has a very different profile from what it once was, and those enjoying the Corporate Hospitality, block-booked tourist agency or competition-won seats will have a wonderful time hearing great music played very well. Those prommers with a less snooty attitude to what the Proms is all about will also enjoy these orchestras (I can speak at first-hand for five of them) and the music they perform.
However, there is a question which nags at my mind, happy as I am to see the net widen and the Proms open its doors to orchestras from, shall we say, the second division globally. And that is, is there anything really, truly, “Global” about these orchestras? True, most of them will include one work which comes (very loosely, in the case of the Singapore Symphony) from their neck of the woods, but listen to their music-making; would you really be able to guess the nationality of the orchestra they represent? Once upon a time you could tell a Russian horn player from an American one by the sound they produced, but no longer. The spread of teachers and players to all corners of the world has effectively neutralised the sound of orchestras, and even where, as in the case of the China Philharmonic, the vast majority of players on stage look Chinese, they certainly do not sound it. With many of the players in these orchestras having themselves moved across continents (fans of the old Malaysian Philharmonic might like to count the number of their former colleagues they espy amongst the ranks of the Qataris) the days of an orchestra having a distinct national sound are long gone.
On top of that, Classical music is very much a global thing, and one of its defining characteristics is the ability for it to be disseminated with equal validity across continents and cultural boundaries. With that in mind, is there any artistic or musical value in bringing all these orchestras into London from around the world?