Leave lasers to others, but the Albert Hall Proms could enhance the show

Bristol leads the way in challenging the tradition of classical concerts

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The Independent Online

There was an interesting moment the other day in Vladimir, Central Russia. The director of the regional Culture Department asked the conductor of the Vladimir Symphony Orchestra why he was standing with his back to the audience, and suggested he turn round to face the hall with his back to the orchestra.

The moment caused some outrage even among the British classical music community when it was recounted on a website over here. Which brings me to Bristol, and the Bristol Proms. As reported in this paper this week, next week’s inaugural Bristol Proms will aim to bring classical music to new, young audiences and will feature top virtuosi performing to rock concert style light shows, with screens and with, yes,  the conductors’ and soloists’  faces on them. Perhaps the  Russian moment wasn’t quite  as mad as it seemed.

The two people behind the Bristol Proms are Universal Music supremo Max Hole and the Bristol Old Vic director (and creator of War Horse) Tom Morris. They have cheekily pinched the word Proms from that other event at the Royal Albert Hall, and like The Proms have £5 standing tickets.

As one who has been involved with a committee set up by Hole to think of ways of bringing classical music to new audiences, I wish them good luck.

My own experience at the Proms (the Royal Albert Hall ones) in the first two weeks of this season showed me that things are already changing. Audience members clap between movements, for example, without being made to feel like the man in the Bateman cartoon. But I still notice a mismatch between the Proms in the Hall and the Proms that I watch on TV. In the Hall you never see the conductor. On TV, the cameras focus on his face, his expressions, his sweat, his intensity an awful lot of the time. If it enhances the experience for TV viewers, why should paying attenders not have their experience enhanced, too?

The answer, I think, has eventually to be screens at classical concerts, as Bristol will have next week. Not all classical concerts. There can be a mix of the traditional and the boundary-breaking. But at present there is hardly any mix at all. I would also love, even at the excellent and inspiring Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, a bit of chat. A brief introduction from the conductor could set the scene and increase appreciation.

Certainly, I’d love to know what the encore is that is played. When I went the other day, I had no idea because no one said, and it wasn’t mentioned in the programme. I nodded sagely, pretending to be in the know, but I’d prefer to leave my acting skills at home.

No, I don’t expect or want light shows and lasers at the BBC Proms. They not that sort of occasion, and they already have marvellously eclectic programming and an infectious atmosphere. But I do want to see the conductor’s face via a screen, and I do want more acceptance that classical concerts generally have to embrace change.

Here comes the sun, in magnetic harmonies

On the subject of the Proms, I was present at what must have been, on one level, the most historic Prom ever, though little has been made of it. David Matthews’ new work A Vision of the Sea had its world premiere at the Royal Albert Hall last week and featured at the end “the sound of the sun” as recorded by scientists from Sheffield University. According to the Proms programme, these are “musical harmonies produced by the magnetic field in the outer atmosphere of the sun. Scientists found that huge magnetic loops observed coiling away from the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, and known as coronal loops, vibrate like strings on a musical instrument.”

Yes, the actual music made by the sun, depicted in sustained string harmonies, heard in a concert hall for the first time. Not so much a world premiere, more a universe premiere. 

Appearing at a stage, track or couch near you

Maureen Lipman described the Culture Secretary Maria Miller as a “nightmare”, claiming most arts ministers have never “bothered to go to the theatre’’. I feel this is a bit hard on Ms Miller, who negotiated with the Treasury a better than expected settlement for the arts. And I believe she can be seen in the stalls from time to time.

Also, thespians tend to forget that the Culture Secretary should not just go to the theatre, but to opera, dance, film, art exhibitions, poetry readings and stand-up comedy. Sport also comes under Ms Miller’s aegis, so she should presumably visit football, rugby, cricket, tennis, swimming and athletics. And she needs to be monitoring the output of the BBC, a key part of her portfolio. So really, she should be staying in.