How the Proms turned populist (without offending the purists)

This year, everyone is welcome at the Albert Hall. David Lister salutes a vintage season

Saturday 31 July 2010 00:00 BST

The Dr Who Prom last Sunday – complete with the Doctor himself, the Tardis, a Cyberman, a Dalek and even some classical music – had both children and adults rapt.

But the most significant thing happened just after the concert. BBC News asked children coming out of the Royal Albert Hall for their reactions to seeing a Dalek, Doctor actor Matt Smith and the Tardis up on stage. One little girl was asked what the most amazing part was for her. "Seeing the orchestra play," she replied, wide-eyed.

Every orchestra in the country should get hold of that clip, and use it in their marketing material. Daleks, eat your hearts out.

I was at the Proms two nights later to see the American violinist Hilary Hahn give an unforgettable reading of Beethoven's violin concerto, an event that could have been an evening in itself, but was in fact sandwiched between performances of the composer's first and fifth symphonies. People sitting nearby seemed to be in heaven. "A whole evening of Beethoven," one whispered ecstatically.

A fair old smattering of ecstasy has attended the opening two weeks of this year's Proms. The queues for returns and the critics' reactions both showed how extraordinary and unprecedented the opening weekend was. Mahler's Eighth with a choir hundreds-strong on stage was followed the next night by Bryn Terfel heading the cast of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, followed on the Sunday by Placido Domingo in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. It's the sort of weekend line-up that aficionados would travel abroad to experience.

The Proms has got off to a flying start, but the reasons for that and the implications of it go beyond the superstars attending, and well beyond the needs and desires of aficionados.

First, the success of this year's Dr Who Prom shows what an invaluable gateway into classical music this is proving for children. When I put it to the Proms' director, Roger Wright, that one of the triumphs of the season so far had been the attendance of children, he was quick to correct me. "Not children," he said. "Families."

And he is right to make the distinction. Children are most unlikely to make the trip to a classical concert alone; but if this year's Proms has begun to make a classical concert competition for the cinema as a destination for a family outing, then that will mark it out as one of the most important years in Proms history.

But it's not just children and families who are making their first outing to the Proms. It has been noticeable that the audiences have contained first-time attenders of symphonic works, adults unaccompanied by children. And this has become apparent through a method of deduction absurd enough to be in a Monty Python sketch: there has been a distinct increase in audience members clapping between movements.

Of course, it speaks volumes about the inaccessibility and exclusivity of classical music concerts hitherto that this can even be an issue. But as regular concert-goers know, it is customary not to applaud between movements in a symphony (just as it is customary to cough in those pauses even if you do not have a cough – a clearing of the throat signals that you know your music). This year that arcane barrier has been broken down. The much sought-after new audience seems to have arrived.

Roger Wright says he unreservedly welcomes this breach of concert etiquette, and the spontaneous enthusiasm it shows. Not everyone does, though. After applause between movements during a performance of Rachmaninov's piano concerto, composer and regular Prommer Lloyd Moore was quoted saying: "Why do these people want to clap at every opportunity? It breaks the spell." The violinist Daniel Hope, who has written a guide for the novice concert-goer, entitled When Do I Applaud?, added: "Many of my colleagues don't like it. I have seen Alfred Brendel lecture his audience if somebody applauded after a movement, or give them dark looks. I personally have no problem with it. I quite like it actually."

If the first two weeks of this year's Proms has ended this debate and welcomed an audience not bound by concert convention, that alone might have made it a season to remember. But even more changes have been evident in this remarkable opening salvo. The television coverage, a vital factor of the Proms, has undergone a change. Classical music is probably the most forbidding of the art forms to novices, and the way that it is written about and broadcast often does very little to help attract a new audience. A forbidding vocabulary sprinkled with references that only the experienced connoisseur would understand fosters an impression of an exclusive club.

But this year the BBC has introduced a new way of presenting its coverage. Instead of just the usual big-name conductors, soloists, music writers and star presenters doing all the talking, individual members of the orchestra explain before the performance what they are doing, how they relate to the music, and how they try to make their own performance special. It is an excellent way of making classical music accessible to a new audience.

Crucially though, these changes and this striving for accessibility has not led to any dilution or compromise in the programming. Indeed, there seems to have been a swing back this year from the more middle-of-the- road experiments of recent years such as Michael Ball singing songs from musicals, or The King's Singers doing Beatles' numbers. There are very few evenings in this season which are not core classical music, often mixed with new commissions.

Indeed this is a season with spotlights on composers who are hardly household names, the likes of Scriabin and Parry, and the entire symphonic output of Schumann, who is not always a crowd-puller. In addition, there are 19 premieres by living British composers, nearly double that of any year for some decades.

The early success of this year's Proms season has not gone unnoticed within the BBC. One senior executive told me: "People keep saying: 'There's a lot wrong with the BBC, but I love the Proms.'" Right up to the very top of the corporation, there is increasing recognition that in the coming battles with the Government over funding, content and efficiency, the Proms will prove to be a not-so secret weapon. Entertaining and educational, they are probably the greatest example left of the vision Lord Reith, the BBC's first director general, had for the corporation. As the argument over the licence fee becomes more heated in the course of this year, expect to see the Proms, and this year's Proms in particular, raised by the defence as Exhibit A.

Part of that defence should certainly be how the licence fee's funding has helped to keep ticket prices at the Proms down in the new age of austerity. The price for Promenaders – those who stand in front of the stage to give the event its unique atmosphere – is just £5 (unchanged for five years), which has to be astonishing value to see the best orchestras, conductors and soloists in the world.

And as a glorious first fortnight of the Proms ends, you might wonder if anything can follow that. Well, tonight sees a Prom to celebrate Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday with Dame Judi Dench among the guest singers. And tomorrow, Sir Simon Rattle returns to Britain to conduct.

At the Proms this year, things just keep getting better.

What you can still get tickets for

*Prom 24, 4 August

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Mahler's anniversary celebrations continue with his epic third symphony, conducted by Donald Runnicles.

*Prom 33, 9 August

BBC Radio 3 World Routes Academy

A festival of Iraqi music led by the esteemed, Baghdad-born Ilham al-Madfai

*Proms 38 and 39, 14 August

David Briggs, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Bach day: an early-evening organ recital and a night of orchestral arrangements.

*Prom 41, 16 August

London Symphony Orchestra

Valery Gergiev leads the LSO with a performance of Stravinsky's "The Firebird".

*Prom 49, 22 August

John Wilson Orchestra

Broadway drops in on the Proms with a celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

*Prom 52, 24 August

Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Be transported to 18th century Vienna with Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier" suite.

*Prom 55, 26 August

Jamie Cullum

The jazz singer-songwriter makes his Proms debut alongside the Heritage Orchestra and special guests.

*Prom 56, 27 August

Minnesota Orchestra

Cinematic incidental music by the late American composer Samuel Barber.

*Prom 60, 30 August

BBC Concert Orchestra

English classics and US pizzazz including "West Side Story" and works by the Cornish composer Graham Fitkin.

Audience View: 'It really lived up to expectations'

Peter Woodruff, 32

New World Symphony's performance really lived up to expectations. There are loads I have booked up to see; Brahms is a particular favourite. When the season guide comes out, I look through to see to see how many I'm interested in. This year, I found more I was interested in than in previous years. I first started coming to the Proms about 10 years ago.

Charlotte Wright, 45

Last night we listened to the Late Night Prom with that wonderful Portuguese pianist who did some Chopin. We've listened to a couple at home but we're promming for this one. We've got tickets for one next week and we might go to the Bach day, too. We could come to half a dozen!

Jo Owen, 52

All three pieces tonight were great, very well-balanced. The Wagner piece was the first piece played at the very first prom 115 years ago, so I was transported back to 1895. I could just imagine everyone listening to this amazing bit of new music back then. I like the very simple, very traditional classical and romantic, accessible classics and there has been an abundance of that so I've really enjoyed this year.

Beth Schofield, 22

The conductor tonight, Andrew Nelson, was phenomenal. I volunteer with Proms Plus, a pre-concert talk for families, and we've been working on Dvorak's third movement, so it was good for the young people to hear – the talk introduced them to Wagner and Beethoven but I think they were pretty impressed, despite knowing less about it.

Allan Clay, 45

We came last night and tonight: it's just a beautiful Prom tonight, Dvorak and Mozart. And last night had fairly cutting-edge modern stuff. That was Zimmerman conducted by Colin Matthews, then there was some Stockhausen from the mid-Seventies. But it wasn't creaky-gate stuff, it was understandable. It had shape and form. There's been some great programming.

Jonathan Metzer, 18

I come once or twice a year, and I always prom, because for a fiver it's a steal. I play the piano and the guitar. I have played some Mozart, but not the piece tonight – I've played a movement from one of the piano sonatas, in C minor. It's really difficult!

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in