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Proms 2014: Why the Proms are losing their director Roger Wright

This year’s concerts will feature the starriest names in classical music. But in the background is the sudden departure of director Roger Wright. We reveal the real reasons for his exit

On 18 July the Royal Albert Hall opens its doors for the annual BBC Promenade Concerts, known simply as the Proms: two months of world-class classical music at which standing places cost just £5 a pop. There is nothing else quite like it – either here or abroad. Once you’ve experienced the queues of promenaders snaking down Prince Consort Road with sandwich boxes and comfy shoes, sampled the relaxed but excited atmosphere inside the hall, and witnessed evenings as thrilling as last year’s Ring cycle, when thousands listened rapt to Wagner’s gigantic tetralogy at the feet of the conductor Daniel Barenboim – the chances are you’ll be hooked too.

This year’s season nevertheless marks the end of an era: Roger Wright, the director of the Proms for seven years and controller of Radio 3 since 1998, now ends his tenure as both. His successors – the role is to be split – have yet to be appointed.

The news of Wright’s departure broke in a startling way, in an announcement from Aldeburgh Music, the umbrella organisation behind the Aldeburgh festival and more, that he is to become their new chief executive. The day after this was revealed came an announcement from the BBC that Bob Shennan, the controller of Radio 2, is being appointed as the corporation’s overall director of music. The timing struck many as intriguing. Restructuring is inevitable at the BBC in the current climate, but no one with as fine a track record as Wright’s is likely to be too happy if someone is brought in over his or her head. Meanwhile, whoever takes over Wright’s roles will undoubtedly have to implement funding cuts and deal with whatever may emerge from the new licence fee settlement in 2016.

Wright bids farewell to the Proms after the opening night. “Elgar’s The Kingdom will be the last music I hear as Proms director,” he says. “I’m sad to be leaving the team, of course, but to have had the fun of working with them, and knowing the Proms are in such safe hands, is terrific.”

He does not mince his words, though, when it comes to uncertainties regarding the future. “The Proms has been singled out for reinvestment, so I think there’s a real understanding of their importance, right at the top of the organisation,” he says. “But the biggest question is the future of BBC funding overall. We don’t know what the licence fee settlement is going to be in 2016-17 onwards. You can’t separate out the future of anything to do with the BBC from those decisions. It’s a question that’s going to arrive very quickly indeed.”

Music lovers not only in Britain but around the world are hoping against hope that this recognition of the Proms’ significance will protect them during such changes. For generations of music-lovers, summer without the Proms has been as unthinkable as Halloween without pumpkins or Christmas without carols. This year marks the series’ 120th anniversary; it has been run by the BBC since 1927 and resident at the Royal Albert Hall since 1941. And it is not as if the BBC has not made a huge effort to extend its reach. Indeed, never before has the Proms been quite as accessible as it is now.

If you can’t get there in person, every concert is broadcast live on Radio 3, and there are plentiful TV broadcasts and online facilities to let you enjoy performances by a dizzying range of musicians, from the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle to the Pet Shop Boys. The latter are creating a new work for orchestra and electronics that pays tribute to Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park computer pioneer who took his own life 60 years ago after a 1952 conviction for homosexual activity destroyed both his personal life and his career. A posthumous royal pardon was granted to Turing last December.

There is much to live up at the Proms, especially after the last two years. In 2012 it was absorbed into the Cultural Olympiad and featured some extraordinary moments – whether the arrival of the British athletes at the festivities of the Last Night, or Barenboim walking into the Olympic opening ceremony, as one of eight great humanitarian figures carrying the Olympic flag, straight from conducting a Prom.

Last year’s Wagner bicentenary season included concert performances of no fewer than seven of his operas, featuring starry casts that could turn the priciest festivals green with envy. And the Last Night proved a landmark, being conducted for the first time by a woman, Marin Alsop, her podium festooned with pink balloons. That occasion was double-edged since, as Alsop pointed out in her speech, it was hard to believe such firsts were still waiting to happen.

Staging these festivals required both vision and chutzpah, and paid off handsomely in terms of audience figures: last year’s average attendance saw the Albert Hall 93 per cent full, and 57 of 75 main concerts sold out completely. But without quite such special events to raise the roof, can this year’s programme match that success?

The agenda contains just about enough celebration to keep the mood upbeat. The 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth is marked with three of the composer’s finest operas: Salome, featuring the Swedish star soprano Nina Stemme (last year’s Ring cycle Brünnhilde), followed 24 hours later by Elektra, in which Strauss creates the ultimate in hair-raising musical Expressionism. Earlier in the season, Glyndebourne brings in the cast and crew of its controversial production of Der Rosenkavalier for a semi-staged concert performance.

The World Cup may or may not have sparked this year’s focus on international orchestras from sometimes surprising places. A record number of them are converging on London, many demonstrating the rapidly burgeoning interest in Western classical music in developing countries. Therefore, alongside heavyweight visitors such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, a number of ensembles are making their first-ever visits to the Proms, among them orchestras from Turkey, Iceland, China, South Korea, Lapland, Australia and Qatar.

The latter is a case in point. The Qatar Philharmonic has existed for only seven years, and its music director is Han-Na Chang, the former cello prodigy and protegé of Mstislav Rostropovich, who has reinvented herself as a force to be reckoned with on the podium. The orchestra, Chang says, includes musicians of some 30 different nationalities, and its mission statement includes assisting Qatar “on its journey from carbon economy to knowledge economy by unlocking human potential”. Their Prom will include a work by the Iranian-born composer Behzad Ranjbaran. “The musicians are incredibly excited – it’s such a privilege for us to be making our Proms debut,” Chang says.

Ironically, she remarks that “the women conductors issue” was scarcely mentioned when she took up her post; in a country where the orchestral field is so new, Western traditional notions of the dominant male maestro have not had a chance to become ingrained. She is one of four women conductors at this year’s Proms, along with Sian Edwards, Rebecca Miller and the returning Alsop – which is not a lot, but a gentle shift in the right direction.

Women are relatively well represented among this year’s composers, notably with a Proms debut for Roxanna Panufnik, a new BBC commission by Judith Weir, London premieres for Sally Beamish and Helen Grime and works by Unsuk Chin and Dobrinka Tabakova. Not least, a late-night Prom is devoted to an appearance by the singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, who has crossed all boundaries with apparent ease. Parity for women composers and conductors remains a long way off, but these are noteworthy steps nonetheless.

Commemoration rather than celebration is the order of the day where the music of the First World War is concerned. The tragedy of war has inspired numerous musical masterpieces, and the Proms, besides scheduling some of the most famous, such as Britten’s War Requiem, is also airing rare gems such as the Elegy for Strings in Memoriam Rupert Brooke by the Australian composer FS Kelly, who died at the Battle of the Somme, and songs by the much loved poet and composer Ivor Gurney. One Prom is themed around Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, with a visit from the National Theatre’s Handspring Puppets.

British music has long been an enthusiasm of Wright’s and beyond the works associated with the First World War there is plenty of it to enjoy, including the Violin Concerto by EJ Moeran, a surprise recent hit in the classical charts. The range of UK composers extends from Elgar and Walton to the gritty modernism of Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who both turn 80 this year.

It has not escaped the notice of the Twitterverse, though, that what the BBC Proms seems to celebrate above all this year is, well, the BBC. Quite a few events draw upon the broadcaster’s wider brand, including a Sports Prom and a CBeebies Prom offering the under-fives an early experience in concert-going. Traditionalists have predictably been snorting about such things – to say nothing of the bile that still greets the occasional presence of pop musicians in the country’s premier classical festival.

But contrary to those critical of apparent self-aggrandisement by the BBC, Wright says that he sees the trend as “hugely positive” in terms of reaching new audiences. “After all,” he points out, “it’s the BBC licence fee payer who pays for the Proms. The range of the audience becomes greater and greater the more we can play to different audiences. The Sports Prom is a great example: for a Prom to be live on Radio 5 Live for the first time is a really big deal, as is the late-night ‘Battle of the Bands’, looking back to the Swing era of the 1930s and 40s, which is on Radio 2. It’s always been the agenda to reach new audiences for classical music. That’s absolutely what the Proms do.”

For the moment, it’s time to put any anxiety about the future aside and get ready to enjoy the music. All you need are open ears, an open mind and comfortable shoes.

BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0845 401 5040) 18 July to 13 September