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

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