Why more millennials should go to the Proms

The first night is a reminder that there is still a huge diversity problem in classical music for both performers and audience.

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By the end of the first night of the Proms, the atmosphere is jubilant. The evening has ended with Janáček’s rousing Glagolitic Mass, a monumental early 20th century work featuring symphony orchestra, full chorus and organ. It feels a fitting segue for the rest of the festival, the largest and most famous of its kind in the UK – perhaps the world – which will now run at the Royal Albert Hall in London every day until 13 September.

There is also a sense amongst the audience of knowingness. The Proms is an event for which one can “get the bug”. In the bar, I overhear the waitress ask an elderly couple, “Is this your first time at the Proms?” Slightly confused by the question, the woman replies, “Well, yes – I mean, this year.”

That it is undoubtedly so full of regulars – people who anticipate “Proms season” – enhances the feeling of community and celebration. However, this community is somewhat closed off: classical music events are not frequented by the full spectrum of society. Despite the £5 “promming” tickets (for which you queue earlier in the day and are allocated a standing spot in the pit), there is still an accessibility problem. Looking around at the 5,000-or-so people in the Royal Albert Hall, most faces are white, and most hair is grey.

Perhaps this is simply a sign that the classical music world is slowly dwindling. Maybe there just isn’t the demand for classical music anymore because it is too complex and difficult. Maybe it’s ok that young people’s musical needs are sated by pop in its myriad forms.

You could very well argue this in theory. But, as a millennial who also enjoys listening to Cardi B and Arctic Monkeys, I would advise that you don’t. Hearing the Janáček mass in the Albert Hall on Friday – the colossal space filled by the inimitable power of the organ and the fluid organism that was the orchestra – was moving in a different way from other music. That’s not to say it’s better or more worthy of critical attention – it’s just different, in a way I would advocate that everyone should have the opportunity to experience.

The Proms has historically been a festival committed to showcasing a range of work, including the new and avant garde: it is very much unstuffy in a musical sense. This year, performances will include a new work by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, an evening dedicated to Nina Simone and a Prom showcasing “the breaks”, the genre of hip hop that has inspired breakdancing.

On this vein, the first night of the Proms traditionally opens with a premiere of a new work. This year it was a piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, composed by the young Canadian Zosha Di Castri. It was suitably celestial and dramatic, with plenty of violent pizzicato, an ethereal soprano melody and rustling sound effects created by the orchestra rubbing the palms of their hands together. 

The Proms does not contrive to modernise itself by including new works: rather, it has always been an aim of the festival to do so. Though this is a positive attribute, allowing young composers opportunities and keeping the festival fresh, it exists with a trace of irony. These works are not the works that are going to pull in new audiences, because while they are progressive, they are often more impenetrable. Those unfamiliar with classical music are more likely to be attracted by Holst’s Planets Suite, or the traditional last-night programme of “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory”.

There is a catch-22 for the Proms programmers, then. But they generally do a commendable job of balancing the scales, mixing Classic FM favourites with contemporary work and pieces of other genres entirely. 

There is also the issue of gender to contend with. In 2018, the Proms committed to a 50 per cent commissioning rate for women by 2022. This year, just under 20 per cent of the total composers are women (30 in total, next to 128 men). Last night Karina Canellakis became the first woman to conduct the first night of the Proms in its 125-year history (Marin Alsop was the first to conduct the famed Last Night in 2013).

This might seem pitiful, but in classical music – which even in its contemporary forms has been dubbed “pale, male and stale” in a recent Guardian article – it’s progress. It was a poignant moment when Di Castri emerged from the audience and hugged Canellakis onstage after the premiere of her piece on Friday evening: it is so rare to witness a classical performance in which all the creative decisions have been made by women. It should serve as motivation for programmers to keep striving for gender equality.

No matter how many new or female-led works are played, the world of classical music is always burdened by the weight of tradition. In a heartfelt expression of appreciation, some of the audience felt compelled to clap following particularly stunning movements of the Janáček. But the crowd as a whole was unsure whether this was acceptable, and it most often turned into an awkward smattering. 

The question of clapping between movements has long been contentious and is still disputed. This is confusing for regulars (though the diehards would probably vow always to wait for the end of the piece); positively intimidating for newbies. The stewards at the Hall are still dressed in waistcoats and ties. The men in the orchestra are in tails. The Proms is ostensibly a casual event and I am familiar with classical music environments; I still felt self-conscious in jeans.

The Proms sets out to be a celebration of the power of music in increasingly diverse forms. The first night in 2019 exhibited, in the programme of Dvořák and Janáček, that grand late Romantic and 20th century works are bound to thrill. It also gave a platform to two talented women under 40, which is obviously positive, though it’s sad that it’s noteworthy. There is still a huge diversity problem in classical music for both performers and audience. It is a world propped up by stuffy tradition that is inadvertently off-putting to new audiences, and the Proms is no exception.

However, the breadth of the music performed at this festival provides a rare opportunity to dip into classical without too much effort (or money). I would encourage anyone to go and have their head blown off by the organ or heart stopped by the orchestra. And for what it’s worth, if you feel the urge, I think you should go ahead and clap between movements. Ultimately, the Proms is there to engage – not silence.

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.