Katie Derham: Prom queen on a musical mission

The presenter wants to bring classical music to the masses and rid the Proms of its posh-people-only stereotype

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The Independent Culture

Do you remember the film Pleasantville? Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon as brother and sister transported back to a perfect 1950s American town... where everyone lives in black and white, polite, safe and utterly dull? As they bring fun, rebellion and the spirit of the 1960s to their neat Brylcreemed new friends, the characters gradually live life in technicolour.

 In much the same way that a decent history teacher strives to convince children that our great-great grandparents occasionally got down from their penny farthings, took off their stovepipe hats, and were as emotional, funny and fallible as we are today, I find myself on a constant mission to evangelise about classical music. To Pleasantville it, if you like. To spread the word that classical music is a full colour experience, not a stuffy historical curiosity.

I know this is true – I’ve felt it countless times myself, witnessed hundreds of first-time concert-goers feel the visceral, joyful, gut-wrenching jolt that classical music is capable of. It’s why I left the newsroom four years ago. I wanted to join the best team of music evangelists in the business – the brilliant enthusiasts who run the BBC Proms. Henry Wood, when he and Robert Newman launched the promenade concerts nearly 120 years ago, wanted classical concerts to be  accessible to all. That mission to democratise classical music flourishes today, with the £5 tickets and the enormous variety of concerts on offer to everyone via a multitude of different platforms.

In the extensive line-up of top-notch concerts every year, there will be always be programmes to appeal to the traditionalists – the celebration of Richard Strauss’s 150th birthday this year is a good example; tickets to see Nina Stemme sing his Salome were some of the hottest in town, and I’ve never seen so many Prommers packed into the arena for Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture last month. Daniel Barenboim, still heroic in many people’s eyes for his Ring cycle at the Proms last year has been back in town with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing Ravel.

Since its creation by Henry Wood, the Proms has also been tasked with appealing to new audiences too and this year is no exception. We’ve also had Laura Mvula, singing soulful new arrangements with the Metropole Orkest, the high-octane CBeebies Prom, the moving War Horse Prom and the utter joy that was the fully staged Cole Porter musical, Kiss Me Kate, courtesy of the John Wilson Orchestra. The list goes on.

The quality is exceptional. But while it’s  wonderful for the 6,000 Prommers who can make it to the Albert Hall, I won’t consider my mission a success until there are 1,000 times more than that enjoying the music at home. Yes, you can listen to every Prom live on Radio 3, and hundreds of thousands of people do. But I want more.

This year we are televising 28 Proms; you can see them on BBC4 every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Watching a concert on TV brings a different experience. You’re not there… but you get closer to the musicians, closer to the action. Watching the director of a huge multi-camera operation like a Prom isn’t dissimilar to watching the conductors we film; it’s a work of art and precision, and can help bring the music alive. By choosing the shots, by focusing on a particular instrumentalist, a narrative can be shared, you can have your hand held through a piece of music you might not know. The skill of the musicians is seen in sharp focus, the sweat on their brow or the tears in their eyes.

For me, though, the key to unlocking classical music has always been in the storytelling, the context, the history of a piece. Knowing that Mozart and Beethoven were famed for their ability to improvise completely revises the way you might consider their music. They were the jazz musicians of their day, and they’d have hated their works to be musical fossils. Understanding the tragedies that were about to befall Mahler makes you listen to his 6th symphony, known as the “tragic” in a different, more human and empathetic way.

On Proms Extra, the chat show I present every Saturday evening on BBC2 we invite three musicians to talk about what they loved – or didn’t enjoy – about the proms we’ve televised that week. We show short clips of the concerts, and then have a live performance at the end. Musicians are fascinating, passionate people. They are steeped in knowledge of their profession. And they’ve got some great anecdotes. It is a joy to hear them talk about their world, to peek behind the curtain into the life of a classical musician.

I will always treasure hearing Sir Peter  Maxwell Davies, 80 today, talk about his daily routine composing, or Patricia Rozario describe what it was like to be John Taverner’s muse. Or to hear Daniel Hope and Stephen Hough trade horror stories about wardrobe malfunctions. These people are human. And they play – or write – beautiful music. For me, they are the best way to encourage a new audience to classical music. No dumbing down, no gimmicks, just respectful, entertaining, informative conversation. And the acknowledgement that good music is good music, however you want to define it. And, I’m happy to say, judging from the audience response, it seems to work.

But the work continues. Until people stop asking me if the Proms are posh, or if normal people can enjoy a classical concert, I’m going to keep on banging the drum for classical music. On TV, on the radio, online, live in the hall, I don’t mind. But all of it in full Technicolor.

Katie Derham presents Proms Extra on Saturday nights on BBC2  and anchors the BBC Proms coverage on BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4. She is also a BBC Radio 3 presenter