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It is known as the “bull-run”. You walk up a narrow tunnel from an underground corridor, and suddenly you are in the arena, swamped by glaring lights and expectant faces, your every gesture watched by thousands. But there are no bulls and the atmosphere is not gladiatorial. This bull-run is in the heart of London, and those who walk it are musicians, eager to open hearts and minds through their performances.
Welcome to the BBC Proms. The summer season of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall begins next Friday and Roger Wright, Proms director, will be waiting backstage to wish his soloists luck as they enter the bull-run, telling newcomers not to be put off by the proximity to the audience. “I pass on what other artists have told me,” he says. “Going out there is like getting a huge shot of adrenalin. The atmosphere hits you. Although it can be noisy when you arrive on stage, it becomes magically still when the performance is about to begin.”
The Proms, which run to 57 consecutive nights, are regularly billed as the world’s biggest music festival. Last year’s average attendance was 93 per cent of the Albert Hall’s 6,000-seat capacity – and that’s just a fraction of the total number listening. In the UK alone, live transmissions on BBC Radio 3 are heard by 2m people a week, and in 2012 more than 15m watched on television. BBC broadcasts reach a huge international audience, with more than 45 countries transmitting the Proms on radio and up to 20 tuning into the Last Night on television.
Founded in the late Victorian era by an English conductor called Henry Wood, the Proms began with an altruistic mission: to make classical music affordable for all, at a time before recordings existed. That credo was enshrined in the offer of cheap standing places right under the noses of the performers – a tradition that continues, with 1,400 tickets available for £5 each, on the day of every performance.
But it wasn’t cheap tickets that transformed the Proms from a London concert series into an internationally recognised brand. The turning point was the decision by the BBC in 1927 to take over the running of the Proms. The idea of bringing culture to the people – the mission of the BBC’s first director-general, John Reith – matched Wood’s credo. From that moment the Proms became different from every other concert series. Broadcasting the Proms gave the British public the sense of ownership that has become so crucial to the series’ enduring vitality.
Two other developments increased the Proms’ popularity. The first was the televising of the Last Night: inaugurated in 1947, it is now an international broadcasting event. The second was the debut, in 1996, of Proms in the Park. By replicating the Last Night in cities around the UK and introducing an element of popular entertainment, Proms in the Park invited the whole country to join the party.
Today more than half the Proms’ £9m cost is funded by the taxpayer through the BBC licence fee (box office accounts for £4m). As the Proms brand has got bigger, boosted by digital technology, the concert series has expanded to embrace world music, gospel music and electronic music. But the core remains classical – a diet embracing 18th-century French court music and today’s avant-garde as much as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. A Pierre Boulez pairing of Ravel and Stravinsky, and octogenarian Adrian Boult conducting Elgar’s First Symphony, were among my own formative influences in the 1970s. Such experiences inspire loyalty. Many Prommers return year after year. Some attend every concert.
Another vital ingredient is the Albert Hall itself, the Proms’ main venue since 1941. Dubbed “the nation’s village hall”, it has a size and configuration that enhances the Proms’ distinctiveness. The fact that the cheapest ticket-holders are the focus of the auditorium and the rest are ranged around them gives it a special atmosphere.
All this adds up to a hugely successful hybrid that has not been replicated elsewhere. That may be because, viewed clinically, the Proms probably ought not to work: indoors summer evenings in a metropolis are hardly conducive to mass concentration. That they do work is partly down to tradition, and partly down to the creative and organisational flair of those working behind the scenes.
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As Proms director for the past six years, Wright, 56, has played a key role in maintaining this tradition, but you wouldn’t know it if you met him off his commuter train at St Pancras Station at 7am, as I did a fortnight ago. Dressed in anorak and scuffed shoes, with a rucksack on his back and earphones plugged in, Wright looks like any other office worker.
By the time he starts the 25-minute walk from St Pancras to BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House, he has read his emails and scanned the broadsheets on his iPhone, before tuning in to the Breakfast show on Radio 3 – the predominantly classical music station of which he is controller. “It’s a practical way to use time,” he says, stopping at a café to pick up a tub of porridge. “If you work at something that is your hobby and passion, you never leave it behind.”
Over the next two months, Wright will almost literally “never leave it behind”. Last summer he attended every single Prom and, as he points out, “the day job doesn’t go away – that’s the nature of [combining concert promotion with running a radio station].” A music graduate of London’s Royal Holloway College, with experience of orchestra management in the US and the recording business in Germany, Wright is not the flamboyant type of impresario who basks in the public eye. He has kept a lower profile than previous Proms supremos – it’s not Wright’s style, for example, to give critics a dressing-down in the foyer, as the larger-than-life John Drummond did in the 1980s – while continuing their expansion of access.
At Broadcasting House, Wright’s desk sits a heartbeat from Breakfast’s studio on the third floor. Apart from the presenter, two producers and a newsreader, the place is deserted at 8am. With jacket and shoes discarded to reveal pullover and socks in matching lavender, Wright checks the station’s log of overnight phone messages and starts replying to emails (“I only get boring ones”): a disconsolate Prommer wonders why the 2013 season shows scant acknowledgment of the Verdi bicentenary; a BBC colleague wants to co-ordinate first world war commemorative programming with the 2014 Proms; a music publisher is seeking a Proms premiere for a new work in 2015. Planning stretches three years ahead. The 2014 season is complete, 2015 scarcely less so.
“Far more ideas are put to us than we can contain in one season,” says Wright. “Most of my job is about saying ‘no’, and a lot is plain admin. The notion that I sit here every day thinking creative thoughts couldn’t be further from the truth.” Despite that disavowal, a form of collective creativity is essential if Wright and his staff of 20 are to make a Proms season that matches BBC schedules, top artists’ availability and audience expectations. And next to collective creativity, what about political sensitivity? There is a perception outside Broadcasting House that the Proms have been embracing a more populist agenda in recent years, in response to public pressure for the BBC to justify its licence fee.
This summer will see the first Urban Classic Prom (with rap, R’n’B and soul performances, as well as contemporary classical), a Proms debut for 6 Music, the BBC’s eclectic, cross-genre digital radio station, and the first Proms appearance by a rock group – the Stranglers.
It is a sign of the Proms’ power as a brand that there has been no outcry or extended debate about this widening of parameters. Doctor Who Proms and Family Proms, both innovations of recent years, may look like box-ticking on the part of a publicly funded organisation but, like the introduction of pop, they fit the Proms’ democratic ethos and reflect a widening of the definition of culture in the 21st century. Even Henry Wood included popular novelties such as music hall. There will come a time when 1960s pop will be categorised as “classical” – and then the Proms will be seen as ahead of their time.
Wright looks to crowd-pleasing acts to bolster the Proms’ 21st-century mission: that of introducing the world of the orchestra to new audiences. For example, this year’s first-ever free Proms performance, of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on August 11, “is about getting to audiences who wouldn’t otherwise think of coming. We can afford to do that because of our funding package. And it’s televised.”
What Wright is implying is that no matter who comes on the night, the BBC’s target audience is far beyond the confines of a London concert hall. It’s in the nation’s homes, it’s on social-media discussion boards, it’s on later retransmissions, it’s on YouTube clips. As long as the Proms continue to reach that sort of demographic, the BBC’s mandarins are likely to leave well alone.
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The nuts and bolts of the Proms are an invisible presence at planning meetings on the day of my visit to Broadcasting House. The first involves Wright, his Proms editor Edward Blakeman and concerts-and-events manager Helen Heslop. A second, round the corner at Western House, brings together a handful of BBC music television editors.
The daily schedules they have pored over in recent months will be tested next week. On Monday, BBC technical staff will move into the Royal Albert Hall to set up the Proms “rig” – a huge canopy on to which lighting and microphones are attached before it is hoisted above the stage. By the time rehearsals start on Thursday, front-of-stage camera positions, backstage wiring and digital sound vehicles must be in place, the latter parked outside door 11.
“That get-in is so mammoth – people start tripping over each other,” says Blakeman. “There are three big screens and a number of smaller plasmas just for the Doctor Who concerts. It’s a tricky hall for acoustics – having the canopy up or down slightly can change everything.”
Getting hundreds of orchestra musicians and choristers into place on any given day – not to mention camera crew, technicians and presenters – represents an organisational nightmare. The bunching together of five long Wagner performances later this month has created “a mammoth knock-on effect,” says Heslop. “We had to ask [conductor] Daniel Barenboim to alter his schedule when we found that two orchestras needed the same morning slot for their general rehearsal.”
TV schedules have to be hammered out even earlier. Slots on BBC2 and BBC4 are booked before Christmas, and by mid-May the programme director will have “locked down” camera positions for the 27 televised concerts.
A typical Prom concert has 800 scripted camera shots, “each planned, numbered and described in the score, and given on cards to the camera crew,” explains executive producer Francesca Kemp. “It’s not busked and made up like football – it’s a carefully thought-through journey. If there’s a last-minute change – if the conductor says, ‘Actually, I want the horns there, and the violas and cellos to swap places’ – all your cello shots won’t work.”
There will be a mixture of relief and nervous anticipation when the season gets under way on Friday. The schedule begins with an orchestral load-in from 7am, an onstage piano tuning at 8.30am, a check on orchestra layout at 9.30am, followed by a three-hour technical rehearsal with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for Saturday’s Doctor Who Prom.
At 1pm there will be more piano tuning (30 minutes) and rehearsals for that evening’s piano soloist (60 mins) and TV presenter (60 mins) – during which the Doctor Who gallery and lighting screens will be de-rigged, lighting for the evening’s piano concerto will be fixed and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s harps will be tuned. By 3pm members of the BBC Symphony will be trooping on stage for their final three-hour rehearsal and at 6pm there will be a final check of camera positions for the evening concert. Within minutes of the doors opening at 6.45pm, Prommers will have flooded the arena.
Around 7.15pm Wright should be picking his way round the hall’s underground backstage corridor, past instrument cases, scurrying technicians, nervous choristers and sundry hangers-on, to pop his head around the production team’s door and pay a courtesy visit to artist dressing rooms. Minutes later, after congregating at the bull-run, conductor and soloists will head for those starry lights and expectant faces, while Wright quickly repairs to his grand-tier box. On the stroke of 7.30pm, the 2013 season of BBC Promenade Concerts will begin. There will be no respite until the Last Night on September 7.
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Critic’s choice: Five not to miss
A Proms coup: Thomas Adès conducts the premiere of his biggest orchestral work, Totentanz.
July 22, 23, 26, 27, 28
The first complete Proms cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen, led by Daniel Barenboim, the greatest living Wagner conductor.
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra plays Strauss’s Blue Danube and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – a pairing that you’d only find at the Proms
Nigel Kennedy’s late night performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons promises to be informal, uplifting and electrifying.
John Wilson’s Hollywood Rhapsody (a celebration of film scores) builds on the success of his recent “hits from the musicals”.
Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic
Read his review of the first night of the Proms on Monday July 15