David Lister: The Week in Arts

Such a radical approach to classical music
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The first thing that struck me about the release of the Proms programme this week was what an odd attitude we have to anniversaries these days. The Proms will honour the composers Messiaen (born 100 years ago), Vaughan Williams (died 50 years ago) and Stockhausen (would have been his 80th birthday if he had not died last year). I cling to the old belief that anniversaries should be anniversaries of a birth, not a death, and even then only the numbers 50, 100 and multiples of 100 should apply.

But maybe that's old maths. Maybe 80 is now a key anniversary, or maybe the new head of the Proms, Roger Wright, just likes Vaughan Williams, Stockhausen and Messiaen, and will employ any old mathematical trick to get them in.

Certainly, it is Mr Wright rather than Mr Stockhausen who is important as regards the Proms at the moment. There had been considerable interest in what the head of Radio 3 would do with the Proms. (And incidentally, isn't running the biggest classical music festival in the world a big enough job for one person? Perhaps the head of the Edinburgh Festival could run Radio 2 in his spare moments.)

Anyway, back to Mr Wright and his launch of the Proms programme. He launched the festival with the spectre of arts minister Margaret Hodge hanging over him – a fairly frightening prospect even for a man who can hold down two jobs. Ms Hodge caused a stir a few weeks ago by criticising the lack of ethnic minority groups in the Proms' audience. Mr Wright dealt with this rather well, I thought. He said: "Where else can you hear music of such great quality and made so accessible for as little as £2.20 a night? The Proms have always been about quality and access."

That is right. His job is to put on the best at the cheapest price possible, not as so often happens elsewhere, to adapt the programme and philosophy of the festival in order to try to get new audiences. Marketing can be widened to reach new audiences, most certainly. But this is the world's greatest classical music festival. That is its raison d'être, and gimmicky evenings such as Michael Ball singing songs from the musicals in last year's Proms only detract from the festival.

Mr Wright's predecessor Nicholas Kenyon was in my view an excellent director of the Proms, but he occasionally seemed to feel that the way to bring people into a classical music festival was not necessarily through classical music. Mr Kenyon used to say that the Proms "should cover the whole waterfront".

There does seem to be a curious fear at the Proms of standing up and shouting the virtues of classical music. And that is why my heart sank initially when I saw that one of Mr Wright's big announcements for his first year in charge was a Doctor Who Prom. It will be hosted by the actress who plays Doctor Who's assistant and include a special new Doctor Who scene. But then I saw that the Doctor Who Prom would also feature music that "focuses on time and space", including Holst's The Planets and Mark-Anthony Turnage's new work The Torino Scale, the title referring to a method of assessing the probability of asteroids falling to earth.

In other words, once the young Doctor Who fans have been lured into the Royal Albert Hall and warmed up with a bit of Doctor Who drama, they will be fed a diet of classical music, vintage and contemporary. Roger Wright has stumbled across a radical solution to getting children to like classical music: play them classical music. The same plan can work with adults.

A right royal balls-up

One can sense the irritation of the Royal Opera House in the following press release. It says: "German soprano Anja Harteros [pictured] has withdrawn from the performance of Simon Boccanegra on 16 May, due to a prior commitment with the Bavarian State Opera, which had been overlooked by her management when the arrangements for her participation in Simon Boccanegra were discussed and agreed." The ROH is justifiably irritated. The rest of us might be justifiably amazed.

Aren't top sopranos and their agents and management supposed to be quite efficient? I know the rest of us forget things in our diaries, like the odd meeting over coffee, but not normally a major contractual arrangement double booked with a production in one of the world's top opera houses. And then there are all those ticket buyers who have spent a lot of money to see Ms Harteros perform. Perhaps her managers could send each one a letter of apology. Or a refund.

Jarvis Cocker will be speaking about the art of writing song lyrics at the Brighton Festival next month. The former front man of the Britpop band Pulp is the right man for the job.

I saw that he was quoted this week saying that the night before he had to go into the studio to record Pulp's best-selling album Different Class, he went to his sister's house to write.

"I had to write the lyrics to 10 songs for the album," he said. "I got really drunk in my sister's kitchen and I wrote nine and passed out – and then finished the 10th on the way to the studio the next day."

Never mind a talk at the Brighton Festival, this guy should be in Guinness World Records. For sheer work ethic that takes some beating. I suspect that all those attending his talk at the Brighton Dome on 23 May will leave with a giant inferiority complex.