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
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
    Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

    Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

    David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
    Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

    Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

    A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
    10 best DSLRs

    Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

    Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine