Dissing the Proms is a sort of annual tradition, like cheese-racing or dancing round the maypole. We don't wholly interrogate the deeper reasons for why we're doing it, or what the context really is, or what the realities might be of programming a magnificent summer of concerts that truly can please everybody (i.e., there goes another of those flying pigs over Kensington Gardens). The fact is that we simply don't know how lucky we are to have them. And in the meantime, our eye is off the ball. The ball is: what happens the rest of the year. Beside this, the Proms measure up very, very well.
|Lili Boulanger: the only deceased woman composer being played by a top London orchestra next season|
(Photo from Seattle Symphony Orchestra website)
Here's a bit of context by way of a curveball. I've just looked through next season's programmes for the LPO, Philharmonia and LSO to see what they're doing, or not, in the department of female conductors and composers. (Disclaimer: I haven't been through the seasons of every single orchestra in the country because I don't have time and neither do you, and we already know about wonderful Mirga in Birmingham. I've chosen these three orchestras because they are the capital's chief musical flagships.)
The LPO has ONE (1) piece by a woman in the ENTIRETY of its London season 19-20. It is by Kaija Saariaho. They have TWO (2) female conductors - Marin Alsop and Susanna Mälkki.
The Philharmonia is doing very slightly better. It is having THREE (3) concerts featuring composers who happen to be female: Lili Boulanger, Helena Tulve and Augusta Read Thomas, with a whole programme of the Music of Today series devoted to the last of these. There are FOUR (4) female conductors: Elim Chan, Shi-Yeon Sung, Xian Zhang and Joana Carneiro. Lili Boulanger is the only deceased woman composer being played by a top London orchestra next season.
The LSO is including pieces by THREE (3) composers who are female: Emily Howard, Elizabeth Ogonek and Kaija Saariaho. Among conductors, they score more highly, with FIVE (5) - yes, that many. We encounter Nathalie Stutzman, Elim Chan, Karina Canellakis and Susanna Mälkki, plus Emmanuelle Haïm conducting a baroque chamber orchestra incarnation at Milton Court.
And believe it or not, this lamentable total from the lot of them is progress. I hate to say it, but had we not been making such a fuss these past years, even such extraordinarily pathetic paucity of recognition for the talents of musicians who happen to be women would not now be taking place at all. Beside this, the Proms look positively angelic.
Susanna Mälkki conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Sibelius 2:
I have not even touched upon the matter of BAME representation. The LPO has Ravi Shankar's opera, which is nice, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason is playing Elgar with them. The LSO is having a Gospel concert and is also welcoming Wynton Marsalis. Otherwise: ?
Here's a little anecdote about unconscious bias. On Monday night I went to Chineke's concert for Stephen Lawrence Day. They played, among other things, the beautiful Elegy: In Memoriam Stephen Lawrence by the black British composer Philip Herbert, in which 18 string players each represent a year of the murdered teenager's life. It is profoundly moving and in terms of style sounds a little bit like Barber's Adagio, but a lot more like Vaughan Williams. And what is the unconscious bias? It is that this surprised me. I discovered that I had not expected it to sound so English. And I was not pleased with my own expectations. I learned something. The trouble with unconscious biases is that they are unconscious. You don't know they're happening to you until one of them trips you up. I thought I was aware, or "woke" or whatever you want to call it. Was I heck. If this can happen to me, it can happen to you too, and it needs to happen to some musical decision-makers who were not at this concert.
Here's a performance of it from one of their earlier concerts:
The LPO and Philharmonia are both due new principal conductors in the early years of the next decade when their admirable, long-serving ones - Vladimir Jurowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen - move on to pastures new. These matters depend on circumstance, availability, money and much else. We'll all have our own views on who it ought to be. I can think of at least one person who should be under consideration, indeed who should be pursued around the world from Helsinki to California until she is persuaded. I have not the slightest idea who will actually be chosen and I am not party to any discussions at either orchestra. However, I am half tempted to go to a bookmaker's and put money on at least one of these two high-profile appointments being a British man (white) educated at public school and Cambridge. This is not a criticism per se, because he might be musically excellent, he might a totally lovely person whom everyone there adores, he might be an eloquent figurehead for the organisation and in the grand scheme of things he might indeed be a superb appointment. But why should it be so simple to guess? It's high time our orchestras started to be at least a little bit braver.
|Avril Coleridge-Taylor |
(photo from Wikipedia)
If the Proms can programme ten female historical composers, and moreover the splendid Chineke can go to the trouble of unearthing music by Avril Coleridge-Taylor (daughter of Samuel) and finding that it is really, really good (which it is - they played her Sussex Landscapes on Monday and it was wonderful, gorgeously orchestrated, rather Pucciniesque), then you'd think the bigger, better resourced orchestras could do likewise. And if it is still impossible for one of the UK capital's top orchestras to consider appointing a woman as principal conductor, then it's time for some very serious thought about who is doing what, how and why.
News came through recently from the ACE that they are planning to fund not quality, but relevance. Not the greatest prospect, admittedly - relevant to what, and for whom, and who decides? - but this may in the end force the issue. And the issue has to be forced, or else it will never move at all.