Friday, July 20, 2012

Music: The BBC Proms Online

Each year, I look forward to mid-July and the start of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, a.k.a. the BBC Proms. But first, a digression.

When I was growing up in a remote corner of the high plains, the choice was clear -- if you wanted plenty of “culture” you had to move off to the big city and make your way amongst the crowds and the crime. As your reward, there were plenty of concerts, museums, and bookstores to frequent. You would usually have access to large public libraries and university libraries. If you consider such things to be cultural (I do), you could throw in various sporting events, horse shows, movie theaters showing obscure foreign films... you name it. And there is a variety of restaurants, pubs or coffee shops where you can drop in for a bite or a drink before or after.

The more of such things as you might want, the bigger the city you needed to seek out, and the more of the hassles and expense of city life you needed to endure. Now, the truth is that whether you live in Chicago or Chinook, the constraints of time and money mean that most people spend their days working and their evenings at home. But still, it is a bit easier to get to the Lyric Opera when one lives in the former.

The fact that our wired age makes it possible for many workers to telecommute gets a lot of attention. It never ceases to amaze me that I can be out at the remote family ranch, researching and writing articles, sending manuscripts and queries to editors anywhere in the country, and of course, putting up content on Montana Headlines courtesy of the wonders of DSL. When my daughter comes home, she can spend a few extra days with us without having to burn vacation time because she can work anywhere as long as she has her laptop and high-speed internet, putting in a regular work day, and then spending the evening with us. It is truly marvelous.

What gets less attention, I think, is that the modern wired age also makes it possible for people to experience cultural events from around the world that one would otherwise be unlikely ever to attend. Which brings me back at long last to the BBC Proms, the world’s largest and longest classical music festival, lasting for 8 weeks every summer in London, running from mid-July to mid-September, every minute of which can be listened to online.

Every concert (this year there are 76 -- plus assorted chamber music concerts, recitals, and other events) is carried live on BBC 3 Radio online, and each concert remains available for streaming for one week. Because of the time difference, the live broadcasts of evening concerts taking place in London’s Royal Albert Hall start in the afternoon in the U.S. for those who might be working at a desk where they can listen. For the rest of us, streaming the recordings over the ensuing week is usually the thing.

The full booklet of program notes for every concert is available online -- a veritable treasure-trove of first-class writing on composers, works, and performers. Finally, it is worth noting that in recent years, the Proms have expanded to include literary events -- poetry readings, panel discussions on literature, and the like -- all also available for listening online.

The workhorse of the Proms is the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which is based in London and which does regular performances throughout the festival, with the other four BBC orchestras from around the UK also taking their turns in the spotlight. Perhaps even more importantly, this is a time of year when the whole musical world comes to London, with major orchestras, conductors, and performers traveling from around the globe to perform at the festival.

As I have discussed before here at Montana Headlines, there is still no substitute for live performances and experiences. I once read a comment by someone on the internet who claimed that sculpture and architecture were the only things he felt he really needed to experience in person -- he could stream any music he wanted to hear, could watch recordings of plays and operas, and could experience all of the great paintings of the world’s museums on Google Art. I couldn’t disagree more about the idea that one can just sit at home in front of a computer -- no matter how large the screen and how high the resolution, and no matter how wonderful the sound system -- and have this replace concerts and museums and galleries.

On the other hand, the internet does give an infinitely broader exposure to the world of the arts than could have been imagined even a decade or two ago, especially those of us who have the privilege of living in places like Montana. I suppose I more deeply treasured the bits of connection that I did have when growing up -- the Time magazine reviews of the arts that I devoured from an early age, the weekly PBS television broadcast of the Boston Symphony (and in summer, the Boston Pops), my few treasured classical music records (especially a cheap set of the complete Beethoven Symphonies, and my dad’s favorite -- a set of records containing Mozart’s sonatas for violin and piano that he listened to again and again), and so on... But I love the infinite variety of music, art, and knowledge available 24/7 at the click of a mouse in this modern age and look forward to even more of the same as technology advances. It is a consolation, I suppose, for the equally infinite variety of insanities and indignities that that same modern age deals out to us on a daily basis.

So, some practical notes on the Proms for a conclusion:

There are several ways to access the concerts. One is to visit the BBC Proms homepage and start exploring. An easy thing is to look at the calendar and click on the previous 7 days, seeing if there are any concerts that seem to be of interest. Another way is to go to the “Performances and Events” page on the BBC 3 website, where the currently available concerts will show up, along with other BBC 3 program recordings. If there is a concert on the schedule that you want to listen to live “as it happens” some quiet afternoon (again, something I find to be just amazing,) just go to the BBC 3 homepage and click “listen” in the upper right hand corner. Something unfortunate is that none of the video content is available outside the UK. The BBC is a taxpayer-supported entity, so unless one lives where such taxes are paid, one can’t access the content. Fortunately, all of the concerts are available in high-quality audio, no matter where one lives. Which means that we can enjoy the beauties of a Montana summer by day, and, should we choose, go to London for the Proms that evening. What’s not to like about that?

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