Last year, at a radio industry awards ceremony, I got to share a stage with a long-time hero of mine, Radio 1 DJ Trevor Nelson. Obsessed with classical music since childhood, I've always had an omnivorous appetite for all sorts of music. As a teenaged classical violinist just as addicted to hip-hop, soul, jazz and dance music as I was to Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven, I saved up for years to buy a pair of Technics 1210s, on which I then spun everything from underground garage to 1980s hip-hop and old Miami funk, foraged in basement Soho record shops. I also had a classical vinyl collection that never quite fit in my bedroom, and still continues to grow.
Some of my colleagues may disagree, but to me, music is music. From one genre to the next – at least in the West – it is built of identical DNA and the same alphabet, if you like: the same sonorous vibrations that we measure in the same mathematical units. It always involves the same notes, the same beats, the same rhythms; and it's a continual wonder to me that so much can be done with so little and in so many staggeringly different ways. How anyone responds to those different ways is as personal – and as valid – as how we fall in love. Which is why I get so frustrated by the silos that are erected around musical genres: especially classical, where often the worst culprits of this depressing isolationism come from within the industry itself. To me, the most unforgivable trait in any artist is a lack of curiosity and imagination. A classical artist – or any musician for that matter – with no interest in other art forms is unlikely to be one whose music is worth listening to, no matter how technically superb they may be.
Up on that stage, as Trevor and I were co-presenting a BBC radio award, I told him I'd always been a devotee of his hip-hop show on Radio 1. For that, he announced to the audience, he'd be willing to finally give classical music a go. Come on over, I joked, our doors at Radio 3 are always open.
I'm overjoyed, therefore, that tonight Radio 3 will join forces with Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra at the first ever Urban Classic Prom, which will also be broadcast on BBC3 (not that I can claim a scintilla of credit for the event, which has involved months of planning from many different quarters). Singers such as Laura Mvula and N-Dubz star Fazer will join the BBC Symphony Orchestra on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in a symphonic remix of tunes from the panoply of British urban music, from grime to soul to R'n'B, as well as high-octane orchestral works by Mosolov and Henze.
The classically-educated conductor and former jazz trumpeter Jules Buckley, who has overseen most of the arrangements, hopes it will bring together two different audiences and musical worlds by reinterpreting and reimagining their art on both sides. “All music, so long as it is of a certain quality, has a right to be heard on the same stage,” he insists, “and I've always been on a bit of a crusade to break down the elitist approach to classical music and the ignorance on the other side that it's expensive and for posh people. You can go to a Prom for a fiver, to the Barbican, the South Bank Centre for a tenner. If you want to see Muse at Wembley, you'd better be willing to part with 150 quid! I hope our audience on Saturday is a mix of everyone. The BBC Symphony Orchestra players have been loving it because it's exciting to take on different grooves from what they're used to. Hopefully we can show that off, have fun, really get the audience to enjoy themselves.”
The Urban Classic knees-up will no doubt have some Proms regulars running for the hills and others fulminating. One tabloid columnist was outraged at what he saw as this scandalous “dumbing down” at the Proms – which this year presents at least seven major works of the cerebral Polish avant-gardist Witold Lutosławski along with 18 classical world premieres (of which 14 are BBC commissions), to say nothing of an entire Ring Cycle, and Verdi and Britten centenary-markers.
I was lucky enough to present the first-ever Gospel Prom earlier in the season, and it was deeply moving – but in a grimly “not-before-time” sort of way – to see the Royal Albert Hall stage, and its 6,000-capacity auditorium, filled with people who were not from one predictable demographic. So it should be again on Saturday, when the Proms welcomes artists like grime star Fazer – who has sold a million albums, racked up over one hundred million hits on YouTube and won four Mobos; all accolades that his classical counterparts might legitimately dream of. And Laura Mvula – who, contrary to said tabloid columnist's implication that for “rubbish” artists like these to be invited to the Proms was an insult to “real” musicians, studied composition at the acclaimed Birmingham Conservatoire before embarking on her solo career.
Clemency Burton-Hill presents the Urban Classic Prom at 8pm today on BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra, and on BBC Three at 9pm