BBC Proms – something for everyone

The BBC Proms prides itself on offering the finest classical music to the widest possible audience. Director David Pickard tells Andrew Anderson how he and his team meet this ever-evolving objective.

When I telephone David Pickard, director of BBC Proms, London is in the middle of a fierce heatwave. To most people that’s good news, but for Pickard it presents problems, since there is just one week to go until the First Night of the Proms. And although Royal Albert Hall (RAH) is many things – imposing, handsome, historical – cool and airy it is not.

So, how will almost 6,000 people cope inside RAH on a hot July day? “Actually the temperature is an awful lot better than it used to be,” laughs Pickard. “It is one of the hazards of being in this amazing building that seats 6,000 people. We do all sorts of clever things to control the temperature, like keeping the doors open at the right moments. I travel to work on the Victoria line and I can tell you it’s a lot hotter down there – RAH is really not too bad these days.”

Pickard should know. After all, as he points out, he’s “probably the only person who goes to every single Prom”. It’s a feat of stamina as much as anything, given that RAH hosts 75 Proms each year. This not only makes him an expert on RAH’s microclimate, but it also gives him a personal perspective on the programme as a whole.

“You have to think of the person who is going to come to one Prom and the person who is going to come to them all,” he says, when I ask him about the balance needed to create a 75-concert series (not to mention all the additional Proms concerts, education events and other activities that happen elsewhere).

“For somebody who is going to come to one Prom you’ve got to make sure you’ve got a range of work so they can find something they want to come and see. For someone coming to multiple events, it is about offering opportunities they might not get elsewhere.”

David Pickard © Les Gibbon
David Pickard © Les Gibbon

Pickard cites the example of Prom 18 (28 July) as a perfect piece of programming. “Teodor Currentzis and his period-instrument ensemble MusicAeterna are giving their first major concert in London. I think even the people who go to many classical concerts will want to come and hear them because they are such amazing musicmakers, the programme includes two Beethoven symphonies. At the same time, I hope there will be lots of people who have never been to a concert before because they will perform Beethoven’s second and fifth symphonies. The Holy Grail is a programme that attracts both regular concertgoers and new ones.”

To add momentum, Pickard says that he and his team try to find themes and threads that can link the Proms together. “We have 75 concerts, which is an awful lot to host each year. So we’re always looking at subtle ways of finding connections. Those little strands running through the Proms are important for maintaining our editorial control.”

This year finding the threads has been relatively easy, thanks to a number of important centenaries. “Frankly, we have a bit of a gift in Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday; it allows us to pull together so much of what he did as a conductor, composer and as a person.

“We’ve picked up on the centenary of The Representation of the People Act, which saw British women over 30 gain the right to vote for the first time. It wasn’t the great victory the suffragettes hoped for, but it was still massively important. That’s why I’m so proud we’ve got so many women composers this summer, including big new commissions for both the First and Last Night of the Proms, as well as eight commissions for our chamber music series by women who have never been commissioned by the BBC before.”

Women composers in the main Proms programme include Hannah Kendall, Anna Meredith, Roxanna Panufnik and Isabel Mundry, while the chamber series includes work from Laura Mvula and Bushra El-Turk. In total, 22 women have received commissions this year.

Anna Meredith at the Proms © Guy Levy
Anna Meredith at the Proms © Guy Levy

“It’s also a century since the end of the First World War, so we have a number of concerts dedicated to that – including the First Night with Anna Meredith’s new commission Five Telegrams. London Sinfonietta will perform a whole programme of new works responding to this theme at the Roundhouse.

“The other big strand is the 100th anniversary of the death of Debussy. We’re using this as a marker to look at Debussy as well as a lesser-known composer who died in the same year, Lili Boulanger. She was only 24 when she died, but was an extraordinary talent and the small amount of music she left is of very high quality.”

It was only five years ago that Marin Alsop became the first female conductor to lead the Last Night of the Proms. During the concert she said she was shocked that there were “still firsts for women” in classical music and called for a move “towards more inclusion”.

Now, says Pickard, the Proms are answering Alsop’s call.

“Things have moved on in an exciting way in the last five to 10 years but there is a lot of catching up to do. The reason we are focussing so much on women composers is firstly because there are some amazing women composers out there, and secondly because we need to start replenishing the repertoire with more works by women composers.

“I hope by the time we get to the end of the 21st century the number of famous women and men writing music of any kind will have been roughly equal, which is something you can’t say for the 19th or 20th centuries.”

This is an extract of an article from the August 2018 edition of IAM. To subscribe to the magazine and read the full article click here.