david pickard

Interview: David Pickard

As the BBC Proms marches on into September, James Hanley speaks to director David Pickard about the continuing evolution of the annual concert series and its long-awaited return to live audiences.

James Hanley
  • By James Hanley
  • 24 Aug 2021
  • min read

There was something missing from last year’s BBC Proms. 

True, the performances were as stirring and majestic as ever and – following a very public row and U-turn – the lyrics of Rule, Britannia! did ring out around during The Last Night Of The Proms. But alas, COVID-19 restrictions meant the event’s 125th anniversary was forced to play out before an empty Royal Albert Hall. 

Sans audience, the reimagined 2020 season was always going to have its work cut out to deliver the pomp and pageantry synonymous with classical music’s most famous concert series. So it came as an almighty relief that the easing of lockdown rules opened the door to full-capacity crowds for this year’s Proms, which kicked off on 31 July.

‘There is this amazing thing about live audiences and performers getting back together again, because people have spent so long singing into microphones and cameras with nobody out there to react,’ says David Pickard, BBC Proms director since 2016. 

‘It's been difficult for the whole of the arts world. I was talking to the manager of an orchestra the other day and everybody has had to think on the hoof. Nobody knew what was going to be happening the next day, the next week, or the next month and that takes a toll on everyone. None of us ever want to go through that again and I really hope that next year we will be back-to-back to our normal rhythm.’

Taking time out from overseeing 52 concerts over 44 days this summer, here, Pickard discusses the evolution of the Proms, the realities facing the classical sector in the age of COVID and Brexit, and that Rule, Britannia! rumpus…

'2021 has been about moving back to normality and live concerts with full houses.'

James Hanley: How has it felt to welcome back audiences to the 2021 Proms?

 David Pickard: I'm feeling enormously relieved that we've got underway and am really delighted with the way everything's going. You can imagine that the planning for this year, as for the planning for last year, has been like no other because none of us were trained in how to plan a Prom season in a pandemic! We knew we had taken a gamble by saying that we were going to do six weeks of concerts, with a concert every day. But we felt it was really important that we try and use the brand of the Proms to make a statement about live music being back on its feet again, with live audiences. 

James: At what point did you start planning for the return of live crowds? 

David: The point at which we could see that the possibility of a Proms season was real was when the vaccination process started to roll out at the end of last year. We were listening very intently at how many people would be vaccinated by July, and the early part of the year was the point at which we had to make that call. Now, the irony was that the early part of 2021 was probably the bleakest month for all of us in the lockdown, so we were actually planning concerts at a time when there were no concerts happening at all. We asked our contributors to take the leap of faith as well, because we were asking them to imagine what things would be like in the summer and they were quite rightly saying, ‘Yeah, but what if we can't travel? What if we're locked down again?’ And I said, ‘Well, look, unless we plan something now, we won't have anything at all.

James: How far down the line did you get last year before you had to change course?

David: What I do remember was that, as the pandemic broke, we had literally got to the point of signing off our programme for 2020. When we went into our first lockdown, that was the moment when we thought, ‘Right, we need to pause everything.’ We knew then we're not going to be doing our normal eight-week season with 75 classes. Then we were on another curve coming out of that first wave and we thought, ‘At the very least, we can do some concerts effectively under studio conditions.’ And that's what we decided to do. Very much at the last minute, audiences were allowed into concerts on a distanced basis, but by that point we'd set up a whole Albert Hall in such a COVID-secure way, that we couldn't really have gone back on what we did. So, the 2020 and 2021 Proms have both found themselves on a particular upward curve, even though there have been depths in between. In 2020, it was all about bringing some music back, but without an audience; 2021 has been about moving back to normality and live concerts with full houses.

'More women are coming into the profession as composers, so the whole scene is so much richer because of setting ourselves that challenge.'

James: You’ve spoken about your desire to bring the Proms to younger generations, how have you set about doing that?

David: Well, I think the Proms is about every audience. I always refer to the founder of the Proms, Henry Wood, saying he wanted the Proms to be for the widest possible audience. And the ‘widest’ means wide geographically; it means wide range; it means wide socially and wide in terms of diversity of audience. And all those things are at the back of our minds when we plan it. Specifically for young people, the Proms has a huge head start because the tradition of £6 promming is immediately something that's very appealing. But you can't just put on a concert and say, ‘It's £6, you'll come along.’ Backing up everything we do behind the scenes is a learning programme, which is hand in hand with what we're doing in live concerts. It doesn’t get above the radar, but we were just talking about an amazing project in East London they were doing with kids making their own sound mixes, so there’s that sort of grassroots stuff. More high profile, Aurora [Orchestra] is a good example. It’s a very young orchestra and you could sense there was a younger audience who, without being patronising, were being given a helpful introduction to this music, rather than simply having it put in front of them.

James: How do you feel the Proms are evolving, particularly in relation to diversity? 

David: It's absolutely an ongoing process for us all. We all need to create more opportunities for diverse artists and composers to be part of classical music in general and, of course, the Proms as well. Every year, we build on what we've done the year before and this year, you'll see a lot of ethnically diverse artists as part of the Proms. It's not just Moses Sumney or Nubya Garcia, but people like Sheku Kanneh-Mason. He has shown that a brilliant Black musician can get right to the top of the profession and he is leading by example. But it's work in progress – we know we need to do more and we will do more. There’s also the work we've been doing with women composers as part of the PRS Keychange initiative, where we gave ourselves that target of getting a 50/50 gender split in our new commissioning. We have four new commissions this summer, based around the Royal Albert Hall, and they're all by women. That wasn't us saying, ‘Let's make sure they're all by women,’ we just chose four exceptional composers, and they were all women. More women are coming into the profession as composers, so the whole scene is so much richer because of setting ourselves that challenge.

James: What are the main challenges facing the classical scene right now? 

David: There are a lot of issues to do with freelance musicians; we know that they have suffered enormously over the last 18 months. The freelance arts world is huge and for them to be able to rebuild their careers is probably going to be a long process out of the pandemic, but I think, and really hope that life will get back to normal for them. We recently announced we're forming our own orchestra – the Proms Festival Orchestra – to do a concert this summer, which is going to be entirely made up of freelance musicians. We're going to handpick 60 to 70, brilliant musicians. It's a tiny thing that we're doing, but I'm very proud of the fact that we're seen to be visibly supporting that sector.

'The Proms is the greatest classical music festival in the world, everybody knows about the Proms, so with the difficulties that come with it, let's never forget the amazing thing that people really care about the Proms.'

James: Have you seen any impact from Brexit?

David: Not particularly for the Proms. We're a permit-free festival, it isn't an issue for us to get artists in. So, in terms of the Proms, I don't envisage it having a significant effect on how we programme our concerts, or the management of those concerts.

James: In 2020, there was controversy over the BBC’s decision on whether to have Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory sung at The Last Night Of The Proms. How do you reflect on that, one year on? 

David: I think what we learned last year was how important The Last Night Of The Proms is to so many people, and how important it is to people that those traditional songs are in the Last Night and that they are sung. That was a reason why, in the end last year, we found a way of having those songs sung. It's worth remembering that last year, we were in a very, very difficult set of circumstances to do the singing and all sorts of other things. But I'm so thrilled that we found a way of including Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory last year, and we will be doing them again this year. We see that as part of the tradition of the Last Night of the Proms. It is the end of a series of concerts, which has a slightly different flavour to it. It's more of a party, more of a celebration, and I'm sure it will be that this year.

James: Did that controversy come as a surprise? 

David: The strength of feeling probably took us by surprise, yeah. But I think what it did was reinforce the importance of the Proms to our nation and to the BBC. The Proms is the greatest classical music festival in the world, everybody knows about the Proms, so with the difficulties that come with it, let's never forget the amazing thing that people really care about the Proms. It would be a far worse world if people didn't care about what we did.

'I think the founding mission of the greatest classical music festival, for the widest possible audience, is all about renewal...'

James: What about the future of the Proms? 

David: Well, it's something that's continually evolving. Getting back to your point about young people, I think the founding mission of the greatest classical music festival, for the widest possible audience, is all about renewal – about not resting on your laurels but continuing doing interesting things. So every year, we will have exciting new artists. Next year, it will be a different set of artists who've never come to the Proms and we'll continue renewing that. The biggest challenge is the audience. It's a source of regret to me, for instance, that we can't do more in terms of opening up to broader audiences that are not used to coming to classical concerts. Having said that, a piece like the New World Symphony was clearly full of people who were trying a concert for the first time. There's this controversial thing about applauding between movements, which people feel strongly about. I know that when somebody applauds between the movements of the symphony, it's probably because they've never been to a concert before, and they don't know what the rules are. So that makes my heart lift because I know it's a new member of the audience. The challenge is to get more people coming for the first time.

James: Lastly, do you have a favourite anecdote from the Proms that you would like to share with us? 

David: It isn’t a witty, funny story, but a significant moment of the Proms was when [conductor] Bernard Haitink retired from the concert platform in 2019. His last concert in the UK was at the Proms. And Vladimir Jurowski, who's led the London Philharmonic Orchestra for over 10 years, gave his very last concert at the Proms [on 12], so the Proms is a place where extraordinary things happen every year.