Two years ago, David Pickard was announced as the new director of the BBC Proms, a role he took over from Roger Wright. On the day that the BBC Proms 2017 season is announced, he tells us about some of the treats he has in store this summer.
Is this the first year you’ve planned all of the BBC Proms season?
I think it’s probably actually 95 per cent - not 100 per cent, as we’ve got such a long planning process. But just as I was happy to take last year’s BBC Proms as my work, I’m happy to take all of this on as well.
Did you have a specific aim for this year?
One of the interesting things for me is how you link pieces together. There’s a danger with such a massive series of concerts that if you dwell too much on composer anniversaries you can find yourself in a bit of a dead end, beating the audience over the head with a single composer.
I was rather thrilled to see that two of the big anniversaries this year were not composer anniversaries. The Reformation (500th anniversary) and Russian Revolution (centenary) are both really interesting starting points for a series of concerts which can talk more broadly about music and culture, society, politics and national identity.
They’re also both events that had a massive impact on the whole of Europe. Reflecting on their impact draws interesting conclusions about how this wider political and cultural effect shaped the lives of the composers living through those times.
Which Revolutionary and Reformation Proms should we look out for?
I’m really excited by our Reformation Day (20 August) – we’ll be celebrating the central Lutheran tradition of the chorale and music as part of Christian worship. It’s split into three parts. First, we’ve got an organ recital which presents a very imaginative project that has been completing Bach’s Orgelbüchlein with new commissions. Conductor John Butt came up with the rather brilliant idea of doing a Passion concert which takes the audience through four or five different composers and traditions, looking at how that music has changed over the time. Then we’ve got a performance in the evening which – in the best Lutheran tradition – allows the audience to join in and sing one or two chorales as part of the performance. I’m not sure that’s ever been attempted at the Proms before!
I think it is the best way to express one of the fundamental aspects of what Luther was saying all those years ago – music should be about participation. To my mind, that is still true today.
In terms of Russia, we’ve got some landmark pieces. Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, which is a massive piece, is going to be performed by conductor Valery Gergiev and the Mravinsky Orchestra. We’re obviously going to include a lot of music by composers who were involved in or influenced by the Revolution, but I’m also looking forward to a day where we have with the music of Rachmaninov. He left Russia but never really left his roots behind. I think it’s going to be a fascinating experience to see how he continued to be influenced by Russia even once he was living in the US.
Much of the atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall concerts is provided by those who stand in the central Arena – the 'prommers'. Have you ever prommed?
I prommed only last year! I, like so many people, went to my first BBC Proms concert when I was 16 or 17 and I prommed. Last year, on a couple of occasions, I thought I’d remind myself what it was like to be in the Arena again. That wonderful mix of different people standing around you with a shared love of classical music makes it a fantastic experience.
What makes promming special?
A mixture of things. The Arena is probably the best place in the Royal Albert Hall to listen to the concert, and I love the fact that you pay the least amount of money and end up in the best place in the hall. Usually cheap seats at concerts or at opera houses tend to be a long way away from the stage.
There’s also a wonderful community of people down there, the promenaders. Though they may be in a certain amount of physical discomfort from standing up, it doesn’t stop them from being attentive – they are the most attentive audience in the world!
Have you any tips for prommers?
One of the things you should do is try both the Arena and the Gallery (up at the top of the Royal Albert Hall). The atmosphere is very different in both places. From a purely practical point of view, if you’ve got a bad back then go in the Gallery because you can lie down.
The other thing is, just be adventurous. If you’re only paying £6 for a ticket, you can take a chance on something. Dare I say it, if you hate the concert you can leave in the interval. I love the fact that you can take a risk, because you’re not spending so much money.
What would you say to someone who’s never been to the BBC Proms before?
I really do believe that going to a BBC Prom is not like going to a classical concert anywhere else. I have many friends who only come to the Proms – which is a shame because for the good of classical music we want them to move on and go to others – but I think the atmosphere in the hall is something that really dispels the idea that classical music is elitist and that you can only appreciate it if you already know lots about it. I want to say to people, even if you think that classical music isn’t for you, this is a really special event that could change your mind.
David Pickard selects five BBC Proms highlights to look forward to…
A New World and beyond…
I’m really interested in the way we develop the concert format, particularly for an audience that may not be quite so familiar with classical music, or that wants to know more about the music as part of the concert. Dvorák’s New World Symphony is being presented as part of Beyond the Score – a programme format which started in Chicago. It looks at the context and the musical content of the piece before the performance. It’s one of two concerts where we’re engaging the audience in the piece in a very different sort of way, a more explanatory way.
Prom 52: Wednesday 23 August, 7.30pm
Late Night collaborators
We’re giving the first performance ever of Passages, the piece which Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass created together and has only ever existed in album form before now. That’s interesting to me because these are two very interesting musicians who crossed into different genres and forms, and who both have a huge following that is different to ours.
Prom 41: Tuesday 15 August, 10.15pm
There’s a young Norwegian soprano called Lise Davidsen who has just won a lot of competitions. She’s actually a singer who I first heard when I was in my last job at Glyndebourne. I auditioned her and she completely knocked me sideways – a real talent in the making, whose career is really soaring.
Prom 33: Thursday 10 August, 7.30pm
The piece which I was sorry to miss the first time around, but which I’m really looking forward to seeing at this year's BBC Proms is Mark Simpson’s The Immortal. We’ve got 30 premieres this summer, but the Proms is also so important for cementing the reputation of new works by giving them subsequent performances – as in this case.
Prom 17: Thursday 27 July, 7.30pm
Silver screen Prom
When you consider that cinema has been going for nine decades, and that John Williams has been writing music for film for seven of them, it makes his achievement clear. It’s been a fascinating voyage of discovery for me to listen to the very early films which he made, right through to the present day and the Star Wars movies. The variety and imagination and craft of his work is astounding. I think it’s very easy to be dismissive of film music, but this for me is just another musical genius.
Prom 8: Thursday 20 July, 7.30pm
Neil McKim is the former Production Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He is now the production editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.