An ear to the future: Bristol Proms bring classical music into the 21st-century

At the Bristol Proms, all manner of techno-wizardry – from 3D visuals to digital art – is being deployed to lure in new audiences, says Jessica Duchen

You can see the atoms in action around the violinist as she plays. You can enter a 3D visual world where virtual events respond to live sound. You'll see a pianist's performance in intimate, enhanced detail; witness Handel's Messiah on a stage; or listen to an a cappella choir in pitch darkness. This is what happens when a theatre director with a passion for mingling music and drama, a record-company boss fed up with traditional concert presentation and a cutting-edge digital-art studio come together to create an extraordinary new series. This is the Bristol Proms.

The classical-music climate is currently buzzing with innovative presentation: take the cross-genre commissions of the Manchester International Festival, the Southbank Centre's hugely successful 20th-century celebration The Rest is Noise, the craze for cinema relays of live performances, or the growing trend for classical club nights and concerts in concrete car parks. Even so, the technological twists of the Bristol Proms suggest that they'll be going further still; and, as in London's Proms, standing places in the arena cost just £5 each.

One key player behind the series is Tom Morris, the artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, who has to his name such productions as Tom Stoppard and André Previn's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the National Theatre and John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer for English National Opera, as well as the smash hit War Horse. He says he has always been interested in what might happen "if theatre and classical music were to explore the collaborative potential that exists between them".

This was his starting point, along with the BOV itself. It is the oldest continually functioning theatre in the UK, having opened in 1766, and for many years music was integral to its programming, including promenade concerts. Handel's Messiah was performed there in 1782 – Morris is directing the semi-staged Messiah partly in tribute – and in 1831 the venue hosted three concerts by the violinist Niccolò Paganini.

"The thought of all that was inspiring in terms of presenting classical music in an atmosphere where the audience felt entitled to respond directly to what they were experiencing," says Morris. "The culture of its performance wasn't weighed down by a series of social obligations, as some people now feel that it is."

One such person is Max Hole, the other key player behind the event and chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group International. Earlier this year he set the cat among the pigeons in a speech to the Association of British Orchestras, stressing the urgent need for these organisations to seek new ways of engaging more actively with audiences.

"When I really started going to classical concerts I was quite shocked by how many are almost off-putting to the consumer," he says. "There's a lot of convention about where you can clap; the conductor usually has his back to you and often doesn't talk to the audience; and the lighting can be very sterile. The music is wonderful – but if I took my son to a concert he'd run a mile.

"I'm curious about what we can do, not only to draw in younger people to see how great the music is, but also people like me who grew up listening to rock'n'roll, then discovered classical music, yet can be put off by some of the conventions, venues and presentation. I'm not trying to disrespect the core audience and we don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But we need to attract more people and pull it into the digital age."

And so he has thrown Universal's weight behind the Bristol Proms, "a festival that marries world-class classical musicians with a digital environment in a way that might draw a new audience in". Four of the events feature collaboration with Watershed and the Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol's extraordinary centre for cross-genre ventures and cutting-edge creative technology.

"Some streaming events are frustrating in that they just present a slightly less good version of a live event in a cin ema," says Clare Reddington, director of the Pervasive Media Studio. "That didn't seem to use the capabilities of new technologies to create new pieces of art. We're excited to see if we can employ technology to bring audiences closer to classical music, creating a more engaged, informal, intimate environment."

One concert features the 18-year-old star pianist Jan Lisiecki, who performs in the BOV where the audience can enjoy his recital as it is or watch a screen showing a closer view of his playing; simultaneously, an audience at Watershed will see a real-time mix from nine cameras in which film director John Durrant realises the performance in From Every Angle, "an intimate, augmented interpretation of the live event". Then in Vibrations, the violinist Nicola Benedetti takes centre stage while scientific creative visualisations by Danceroom Spectroscopy literally show the audience the response of atoms around her to her energy and the vibrations of her violin.

The studio is also pulling in the Sacconi Quartet, which has a residency at the BOV, for Hack: The Quartet, the four players will be put at the centre of a two-day brainstorming session with computer experts. Together they will explore the intersections of their musical and scientific interests, finishing with a public showcase.

And for a performance of Max Richter's take on Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Recomposed with the violinist Daniel Hope and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the digital designers Play Nicely use video-game technology to create immersive 3D-visuals where events are triggered in real time not only by the music, but the way the performers play it. For those of us who remain techno-twits, that idea is mind-boggling.

All this costs money, which means Universal's backing is invaluable. But dissenting voices are bound to sound in the classical-music community: some view digital visualisations as gimmicks, while others might distrust the involvement of a record company that inevitably has commercial concerns in mind.

Hole, though, is the first to admit that "I'm not doing this for philanthropic reasons". Sales of CDs are not precisely flourishing, and lasting change in the music world can be sluggish due to cost, attitude or both. Ultimately it is imperative that industry leaders invent ways to keep pace with the expectations of 21st-century audiences. "It's easy to be cynical," Hole says. "But I'd rather be doing something pro-active. Have a look, then judge for yourself."

Bristol Proms, Bristol Old Vic (0117 987 7877) 29 July to 3 August

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us