Pomp and turbulence

This year's Proms come at a time of mixed fortunes in the world of classical music. Their director, Nicholas Kenyon, explains his mission and previews the season

Classical music has been under attack on many fronts: funding in disarray, sponsorship falling, audience behaviour changing, and political support less than wholehearted. Some recent challenges to our musical life have been seismic, some of them have been painful, and some sectors of the business which did not look ahead astutely enough have suffered.

The record industry, and institutions that relied on it, are in big trouble. You can't force people to embrace creativity and new technology, but without an imaginative approach to both, this industry will die. (We had to cancel two Proms this year by the Cleveland Orchestra just because the musicians could not agree under their present contract to the internet streaming of the BBC Radio 3 broadcast.)

Concert promoters are finding that run-of-the-mill evenings with no special qualities just don't take off. Because music is now so freely available on the air, on CDs and on iPods, who needs to struggle through the horrors of the London transport system for an evening offering no more revelations into familiar classics than the nearest on-off switch?

We need a reason to come: an exciting young artist, an established artist doing something new, an event. It was odd that Raymond Gubbay got this so wrong in launching his low-cost hand-me-down Savoy Opera, which tried to make a virtue of being unprovoking, when he had got it so right with his highly imaginative and unusual operas-in-the-round at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

But the mood has been changing. Clever, audience-attracting ideas such as English National Opera's Act III of Wagner's Valkyrie at Glastonbury, and the rained-off Bohème in Trafalgar Square (which got more press coverage than if it had actually gone ahead) have shown that our institutions really are prepared to reinvent themselves and rise to the challenge of the fact that audiences are changing and music needs to adapt.

The CBSO has brought Bollywood to Symphony Hall in Birmingham. The London Symphony Orchestra is struggling to make a visionary education centre at St Luke's happen within tightening budgets. The Royal Festival Hall's on-off closure plans are forcing London's other major orchestras to think about smaller-scale work. The Royal Opera made a story this week out of finally retiring its 40-year-old production of Tosca, while innovating by showing the final performances on big screens outside. Some of these ideas may be stunts, but all are part of an ongoing attempt to involve new audiences in music and opera.

How do you move things on and respond to cultural change in a world as surrounded by tradition as that of classical music? Well, none of these things happened even a decade ago: hundreds of children in the Brixton Academy jumping and clapping in four-part counterpoint to John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine; 50,000 people in the open air on a September night in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland lustily singing along to "Jerusalem", united by television; phoning in a vote for the nation's favourite overture and having it played by the Hallé in the Albert Hall; receiving a text message saying who's singing at a concert and being able to e-mail comments and reviews; hearing music written just a few weeks earlier by the teenagers of the Proms Composers' Competition; and watching three weeks of live concerts each day in the comfort of your home via BBC4 digital television, with programme notes on digital text.

Today, all those things are part of a Proms season that is 110 years old, and which brings 74 concerts to the public in the Albert Hall as well as making every one available to all through broadcasting. Ten years ago, there was no digital television, no text messaging, no internet booking. This has been a decade in which revolutions in technology and in audience taste have come together to create all kinds of new experiences for the concert-goer, and new ways to encounter inspiring music. Some have been disorientating, but many have huge potential.

Equally, there are things at the Proms that fundamentally never change: the commitment to informal, un-élitist, high-quality music-making; the ability to queue on the day and walk into the arena; that hush of a crowded hall as it waits for a great conductor; the roar of approval after a great performance; the glory of Beethoven's Ninth or Bruckner's Seventh, the drama of Brahms' Violin Concerto or Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony.

Each of these great masterpieces will be reinterpreted and renewed by musicians in the course of the season. This year, we will hear a Wagner opera on period instruments for the first time (Sir Simon Rattle conducting Das Rheingold), give first Proms performances of music from Dvorak's opera Dimitrij to Janacek's cantata The Eternal Gospel, and bring Humperdinck's ever-popular Hänsel und Gretel to the Albert Hall. New artists will grow and flourish and take up different pieces from the past, or perform specially commissioned new works in the present. The interaction of past and present is palpable - the balance between the traditions of concert-giving and the imperative of cultural change.

The notion that change equals decay is a depressingly knee-jerk feature of British life. Actually, traditions such as the Last Night of the Proms thrive by being reinvented, and without that they can die of irrelevance. Our ability to let all the nations of the UK join in those televised celebrations has increased their inclusiveness and their appeal. Events like the Blue Planet Prom, or this year's family Disney celebration, bring new audiences.

It's easy to see only the downside of change. How often, when you read about the supposedly terminal decline of the record industry, do you also read about the creation of digital television, or the growth of DAB radio, or the ability to listen to music on demand via the internet? The 2003 Last Night of the Proms was Radio 3's most-requested on-demand programme last year. Because our method of cultural delivery changes radically, or audience taste shifts, it may mean only that old ways of offering music are not right for today's audiences.

My way into classical music was through the traditional route of church choir, and then the amazing luck of being taken (during a choristers' summer school in London) to a Prom rehearsal where Jacqueline du Pré was rehearsing the Elgar Cello Concerto. I was hooked.

Today's 10-year-olds are much more likely to come to classical music via the excitement of a Blue Peter Prom (so successful that we are giving the concert twice this year), or one of our Proms Out and About events, which took the BBC orchestras to Hammersmith and Hackney to meet audiences who may never have seen an orchestra before. We have to offer every possibility for new audiences to encounter the thrill of great music-making, and then give them the opportunity to come to the Proms.

Not only the young are changing in their habits and expectations. Our observation of concert audiences in recent years is that they are more sophisticated, less knowledgeable and increasingly choosy and volatile. The Barbican can't keep people away from a Peter Sellars offering or a William Christie opera, because the message spreads that these are unique experiences. But gone are the days when the South Bank Centre could rely on a faithful audience to turn up once a fortnight for its regular fix. Many more different people now come to the South Bank and Barbican, which is a huge opportunity: but they come less often because they do many other things - restaurants, clubs, cinema. Is the experience we offer enough to draw them in?

The Proms have flourished in recent times partly because they have had the stability of funding to grow and develop and respond to changing taste without the alarming volatility of so much other arts funding. (We do remarkably well at the box office, earning back £3.5m a season, but that is way below the cost of such a rich season. If the Royal Opera or the London orchestras had the same degree of support from public and/or private funds as the Proms have because they are part of the BBC, they could be more adventurous overnight.)

The Proms respond to the audience's desire for a great night out which they have an expectation and conviction they will enjoy - even if they do not know everything, or indeed anything, about the music on offer. The unique nature of the now refurbished and air-cooled * * Albert Hall is one factor: because of its round structure and central promming places for those who pay the least, orchestra and audience feel swept into one intense community. Maybe another factor is that the national and international recognition of the Proms is now so great, through broadcasting and marketing, that the audience has come to trust our taste and the quality of our offering.

How is that taste formed? From the beginning, the Proms aimed to lead taste with a combination of popularity and innovation. Henry Wood began the Proms as a consciously popular festival, aimed at an audience that would come and stand for a shilling (and it's only £4 today). But Wood was clear about the role of his "novelties", even those that baffled his audience and musicians. When he introduced Schoenberg's 5 Orchestral Pieces in 1911, Wood exhorted his players: "Stick to it! This is nothing like what you will have to play in 25 years' time!"

That adventurousness was enthusiastically adopted by the BBC when it took over the Proms in 1927, for its support of "advanced" music fitted well with the paternalism of the times. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1930, acquired an unrivalled reputation for the interpretation of new work through its ties with leading 20th-century composers, from Stravinsky, Webern, Bartok and Prokofiev through to contemporary figures such as Boulez, Henze and Turnage. The orchestra takes the leading role in the Proms as a flagship for all that is most adventurous in the BBC's music policies.

What each season's Prom programme represents is a snapshot, the click of a lens on a fluid, fleeting musical landscape whose pattern is always shifting - who's in favour with the public; what do conductors like to conduct; who's been forgotten? The choices represent not crude prejudices ("disgraceful neglect of Bax... far too much foreign rubbish"), but rather the tidal current of musical taste. In recent years, I'd say Mahler Two's stock has fallen a little and Shostakovich Five's has risen phenomenally. Tchaikovsky or Brahms don't necessarily guarantee a full house; Dvorak's New World or Grieg's Piano Concerto will still do that.

It's right that I am always blamed for what's in - or what's not in - the Proms every year, but the truth is that we don't think up these programmes on our own: they are collaborations with conductors, soloists, orchestras. There is no virtue in asking conductors to conduct music they can't identify with. There are a couple of pieces in this year's Proms that I really don't like at all - no, I won't tell you which - but thousands love them and conductors want to conduct them. Equally, there are pieces in the season about which I am absolutely passionate, but which may or not connect with the audience. That's the essence of the creative risk.

So the Proms programme must stand with conviction, as my predecessor William Glock put it - going a little further out to sea than any individual's own taste would take them, and using "a creative unbalance" to focus on some areas of the repertory. Hence the themes we now use to focus the season's planning: the repertory available is now alarmingly wide as early music has expanded and new music is ever more diverse.

It was during a less fertile period of the post-Henry Wood Proms, during the Fifties, when the core repertory of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies would be repeated each season. That is impossible and undesirable now. This year, our themes highlight the meeting of East and West, looking at the huge influence of the East on Western music, exploring the music of the Silk Road and a new generation of Chinese/ American composers; Bohemian music, based on the anniversaries of Dvorak and Janacek but extending backwards to Biber and Zelenka; and England 1934, picking up on the conjunction of the deaths of Elgar, Holst and Delius with the births of Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle.

Because of the way the Proms is funded by the BBC, we are enabled to take risks and to be at the forefront of creativity. Introducing new orchestral music to audiences in the best possible context, thoroughly prepared, has been a keystone of Proms planning across the years. We are essentially a large-scale popular festival in a huge hall with thousands of seats to fill (I envy the experiments the Aldeburgh or Cheltenham festivals can make in their excellent planning for smaller halls), so our concerts usually mix the established with the new and rare.

But because of the BBC we do not, as many in the musical world must, have to make every single concert pay for itself. It's a tough world out there for our colleagues in the London orchestras, for example, whose risks in terms of rarer works are visibly diminishing as box-office returns become ever more critical.

The partnership between the Proms and the BBC, which has run the season now for almost 80 years, has been so close and so successful because the values of each are so close. As the BBC defines its role in the future, the kind of cultural investment and public access the Proms represents will be crucial. We can offer a showcase for the best orchestras from Britain and abroad, for the best composers, for the best emerging new talent.

Because of our umbilical relationship with Radio 3, where every Prom is broadcast live (and, increasingly, with television since the advent of BBC4 and the commitment to three weeks of Proms on digital television, in addition to those on BBC1 and 2), we can make those concerts available to all. The investment we make in quality and rehearsal time pays dividends in terms of a worldwide reputation. This year, Minnesota Public Radio is distributing Proms broadcasts across America, another welcome innovation.

We cannot predict what challenges there will be for music in the future, except that change will be ever more rapid. If we really respect the permanent value of the classical music tradition, we should embrace changes in presentation and format as a way to make that music continually meaningful. Think how cinema has reinvented cinema-going: that has not devalued the product, just made it a more pleasurable experience.

The optimistic view would be that the audience is ready for what Tessa Jowell's recent essay on "Government and the Value of Culture" calls "complex cultural activity... [which] is at the heart of what it means to be a fully developed human being". And the Secretary of State for Culture points to exactly why we need the BBC in this context when she writes that "markets have their place, but theatres, galleries or concert halls also need intelligent public subsidy...".

Except, let's maybe lose that paternalist word "subsidy" and talk of investment - a regular, sustained, productive investment in talent, in musicians, in composers and above all in audiences. That enables us to keep ticket prices reasonable and attendance figures high.

At the start of the 21st century, we have a clear sense that people are moving away from wanting ever more things, more material goods, towards wanting great experiences - events of all kinds, which take them out of and beyond themselves. That is a vast opportunity. Great music, in inclusive arenas such as that of the Proms, can offer just those inspiring moments. We shall have only ourselves to blame if classical music is not at the forefront of offering those thrilling experiences, reinterpreting the great traditions of the past in ever new ways.

THE PICK OF THE PROMS

Evelyn Glennie (percussion)

Plays Tan Dun's Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra with BBC SO (Prom 24, 2 Aug)

I would recommend Bright Sheng's UK premiere, The Song and Dance of Tears (Prom 38, 13 Aug) with the London Sinfonietta. This composition deploys the innovative East to West theme and demonstrates his skilful orchestration.

Susan Bullock (soprano)

Sings Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Prom 33, 9 Aug)

My favourite Prom has to be Out Here to Swing! (Prom 21, 31 July) with the incredible Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I am a huge fan of this great trumpeter, and love the wonderful tunes of the swing era. They always get the audience dancing in the aisles, so the Albert Hall will be jumping!

Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

Chief conductor of the BBC SO; conducts it at the First and Last Nights of the Proms, as well as on 20 July and 1 September

Choosing one concert is not easy, so I have chosen one day. On 25 August, Christian Zacharias brings his Lausanne Chamber Orchestra (Prom 53). Later, the Nash Ensemble give Holst's rarely heard Savitri at the late-night concert (Prom 54). It should make for a fascinating evening.

Dame Gillian Weir (organist)

Plays Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony with the BBC Concert Orchestra (Prom 39, 14 Aug)

The Proms season is satisfyingly rich in masterpieces - works that roll back the heavens; I choose Bach's sublime B Minor Mass (Prom 41, 15 Aug). It's conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, so will also remind me of my first-ever television appearance as a young concerto soloist under his baton.

Jennifer Larmore (mezzo-soprano)

Plays Hansel in Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel (Prom 46, 20 Aug)

For me, the most exciting event this year will be Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble (Prom 40, 15 Aug). The cello timbre is so comparable to the mezzo voice, and Ma offers an extraordinary mixture of Oriental and Occidental components. I would love to hear the music exploring the rich traditions along the Silk Road.

Nicholas Kenyon is the director of the BBC Proms, which start tonight and finish on 11 September, at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms)

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