Roger Wright is about to attend his final First Night of the Proms as director. Here he looks back at over 500 (mostly) enjoyable evenings at the Royal Albert hall.
It was the penultimate night of the 2009 BBC Proms festival. The Vienna Philharmonic had just finished its concert and conductor Zubin Mehta was greeting guests in the backstage green room. I’d just finished speaking to him and was on my way to welcome cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble who were giving the Late Night Prom. Leaving the conductor’s dressing room and walking along the famous curved backstage corridor, I heard something of an unfamiliar noise. I then saw a group of colleagues and Royal Albert Hall staff gathered in the ‘bull run’, the artists’ entrance to the stage. Large wheelie bins were being commandeered and pushed hurriedly along behind the double doors ahead of me.
I delayed seeing Yo-Yo, went to investigate and quickly discovered the source of the noise. The case of a departing orchestral double bass had dislodged a sprinkler head as it was being carried out and water was pouring from the ceiling. Dozens of precious instruments surrounded us, but we couldn’t afford to delay the late-night event. ‘Keep calm and mop on’ became the motto of the moment as the stopcock for that part of the hall’s water system was located. All hands were truly on deck and happily the late-night went ahead on time. Fortunately, by the following evening’s Last Night, there were no waves backstage over which Britannia needed to rule…
This is just one of the many non-musical memories I will carry with me from the seven years I have enjoyed as director of the BBC Proms. In that time there have been more than 500 concerts and far too many musical highlights from which to pick particular favourite moments. Since announcing my departure from the BBC, it’s been fascinating to hear feedback on recent summers as kind comments have flooded in about the Proms that audiences have particularly enjoyed.
There’s no doubt that conductor Daniel Barenboim’s new relationship with the Proms, in particular his 2012 Beethoven/Boulez cycle and that remarkable Wagner Ring cycle last year, will continue to be talked of as stand-out moments. For others, their discovery of conductor John Wilson and his extraordinary orchestra will be their highlights – who will ever forget that My Fair Lady or the encore dancers ‘tapping our troubles away’ and blocking the departure of two audience members? The consistently high quality of all the BBC’s performing groups has also been noticed and has given enormous pleasure, as they form the creative backbone of the whole festival without which its long-term planning and distinctive repertoire would be impossible.
There are many who have also pointed out the renewed commitment to British music during my tenure – I’m proud of those special opportunities we created to present Proms premieres of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi, Bax’s Second Symphony and groups of works by Bantock, Bridge, Foulds and Parry among others. Perhaps though, it is the revival of interest in the music of Vaughan Williams, which seems to have begun after the Proms focus in 2008, that gives me particular satisfaction. To have been able to hear a packed hall listening intently to Vaughan Williams’s Symphonies Nos 4, 5 and 6 in one evening was a genuine thrill.
What remains magical for me about the BBC Proms is that sense of communal listening, particularly in that unique round building, but also the audience community experiencing the concerts on BBC Radio 3, BBC TV and online. There is a palpable sense of us all continuing on our journey of musical discovery – of familiar works in fresh interpretations, performers making their debuts and being introduced to a wide audience, new music specially commissioned for the Proms or pieces which have yet to be heard in the UK. Commentators often say how remarkable the Proms audience is. And performers have often asked me if they can take the audience with them to all their concerts, as they get so much electricity and inspiration from them.
One point that is often lost in the discussion about the special nature of the Proms audience is not just its size or its enthusiasm, but that it is so large for – and curious about – unfamiliar and new music. Other promoters look on, bemused by the regularly sold-out Royal Albert Hall for new work which, in other smaller venues, would probably frighten audiences away. One success of recent years is to have attracted record audiences even with Stockhausen Days, Cage Evenings and more new commissions and premieres than ever before. That’s the power of the Proms brand.
Of course, the BBC’s subsidy of the Proms, which keeps artistic ambition high and ticket prices low, helps to deliver big audiences, but we should not take for granted the £5m of licence fee funding which, among other things, has allowed the tickets for Promenaders who stand to have been held at £5 throughout my tenure.
The growth of technology has also allowed the audience to grow globally in a way which would have been unthinkable in Henry Wood’s time. However, the original vision of the Proms – to bring the best classical music to the largest possible audience – is alive and well. I am honoured to have played a part in Proms history, to have worked with brilliant, creative colleagues and to be handing over the Proms in such rude health to my successor.
And let’s hope that only the right sort of Water Music appears at the BBC Proms in future years!
This article originally appeared in the July issue of BBC Music Magazine