In three days time, the 2014 Proms programme will be announced, and the nation’s cultural commentators will all try to sound surprised. The identity of the headline performers is the biggest open secret in classical music, and you don’t have to be at the BBC to have heard the names going round for months. Most festivals and concert seasons announce their programmes up to a year in advance, but the BBC likes to pretend that nobody knows about the Proms until ten weeks before they begin.
The Proms rightly prides itself as the greatest classical music festival in the world, but it is plagued with silly traditions, and none are as silly as this – apart possibly from the Last Night. And like the Last Night, it is a distinctively British preoccupation that sits uneasily with the international profile of the festival itself. Musicians from British orchestras tend to maintain the spirit of the embargo, talking about Proms gigs in at least slightly coded terms. Players in foreign orchestras, though, don’t bother, and are usually happy to give you chapter and verse. Even the websites of many foreign orchestras make the information plain, telling you the dates and times of the London engagements in their summer tour, just leaving off the venue, presumably to satisfy contract conditions with the BBC.
The sheer impracticality of the embargo is what makes it such a farce. Publicity for yearlong composer anniversaries will carry detailed information about every event from January until December, apart from an ambiguously worded reference half way down the list to a “major London summer music festival”. No doubt the organisers of such anniversary celebrations are grateful for the exposure in the Proms, but the complications it causes to their publicity cycle can’t endear the system.
Then there is the curious sideshow of commentators feigning ignorance. Here is Petroc Trelawny, writing two days before the Proms launch in 2010 and claiming to know only two percent of the programme. That’s an unlikely scenario, and the embargo seems all the more fragile when it relies on such disingenuous pronouncements.
I’ll concede that I am in the industry, but I’m not in the know. There isn’t any other festival or season that fails quite as badly to keep its programming under wraps. Official season announcements by the Southbank Centre or the Barbican, say, are always news to me: a genuine surprise rather than a manufactured one.
Roger Wright, like every Proms controller before him, has charted a course between tradition and innovation, subtly reinventing the festival every year, but without seriously disrupting any of the traditions it clings to. Now he is moving on to Aldeburgh, leaving these challenges to his successor (who, funnily enough, has yet to be named). I doubt that however it is will be willing to tackle issues like the hegemony of season ticket holders in the arena, or the abysmal acoustic of the Albert Hall, but perhaps the programme embargo could be one issue for their to-do list. There is nothing wrong with keeping this information secret and then making it public with pomp and fanfare – but why not do it in November rather than April?