The Proms to go ahead this summer, but 'not as we know them'

World’s biggest classical music festival hopes to offer some live concerts at Royal Albert Hall

There will be Prom concerts this summer but not as we know them and, given there may well be no live audiences and no full orchestras, they are the great Proms gamble.

The organisers of the world’s biggest classical music festival have revealed details of their 2020 plans, which will consist of six weeks of concerts from the archives. They hope to follow this with a fortnight of live music and “a rousing last night” from the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Music festivals around the world have been cancelled because of the coronavirus crisis, but organisers of the Proms insist their show will go on, albeit massively truncated. David Pickard, the season’s director, called it “not the Proms as we know them, but the Proms as we need them”.

The two-week live element, from 28 August, is described as an “ambition” rather than a certainty, with musicians performing in the Royal Albert Hall “culminating in a poignant and unique Last Night of the Proms to bring the nation together”.

Decisions on how orchestras and choirs might safely physically distance from each other will be made closer to the time. As will whether there will be a live audience. Instead organisers say they will “respond to the latest advice available”.

Abandoning six weeks of live performance will be hugely disappointing to Proms fans and the wider classical music sector.

Mark Pemberton, the director of the Association of British Orchestras, said: “It is a blow on top of many blows. All concerts have already been cleared out of diaries until the autumn. The Proms was the last bit of news we were waiting for, but nobody had any expectations that it was going to be feasible to put on Proms as we know and love them.”

The question of how, or if, concert halls and theatres can operate in a world of physical distancing is one of the biggest facing the arts. Few have come up with a solution that makes economic sense.

Pemberton said for orchestras it was not just about distancing musicians on stage: “How do you get an orchestra backstage, changed and circulating before they even get on a platform?

“Even if you can get back to work, and we are seeing this in countries which are ahead of us … it is all smaller. We have no expectations that full orchestras will be back in work anytime soon.”

Orchestras are hanging on thanks to the government’s furlough scheme but many are close to ruin. News that the Southbank Centre may have to stay closed until April has added to the concerns.

“Orchestras may just about limp through to the end of the year but then find there aren’t any concert halls who are going to open their doors for them,” Pemberton said.

The Proms announcement does at least offer a glimmer of hope. Pemberton said the two weeks of live performance could provide lessons for the future. It could be a “laboratory … We can look forward to seeing how they manage it and then learning from it and rolling it out across the sector from the autumn.”

Many observers had been fearing total cancellation, something that has never happened since the Proms were created as the “people’s music festival” in 1895. They have survived both world wars, albeit with curtailed seasons.

The reconceived 2020 season will begin on 17 July with a first-night mash-up of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, created by Iain Farrington and performed by all the BBC orchestras and singers virtually.

There will be a Proms from the archives every evening on Radio 3 and every Sunday on BBC Four. Radio 3 will also invite listeners to share their favourite Proms moments, which will be reflected on air.

Pickard said the current times were challenging for everyone, “but they show that we need music and the creative industries more than ever”.

He added: “We will provide a stimulating and enriching musical summer for both loyal Proms audiences and people discovering the riches we have to offer for the first time.”


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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