Roger Wright, BBC Proms Director

We talk to BBC Proms director Roger Wright to get a glimpse behind the headlines and find out what it’s all about...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 5 Aug 2013
  • min read
From Murray Gold’s Doctor Who Prom extravaganza to the Benjamin Britten centenary celebrations or the BBC 6 Music concert, the bill has been scrutinised by music fans around the world looking for patterns and trends in classical British music.

We caught up with Roger Wright, the BBC Proms director, to get a glimpse behind the headlines and find out what it’s all about this year...

The BBC Proms is a massive programming feat. How do you set its remit each year?
The remit was established back in 1895 and it hasn’t really changed. This notion of bringing wonderful classical music to the largest possible audience was what Henry Wood and Robert Newman were trying to do back then. If you fast forward to 2013 that is still our vision but obviously the way we can carry it out has changed because audiences’ tastes have changed and the way we can reach audiences has changed.

How have audiences changed and how have you adapted programming to meet that shift?
There are some things about audiences that just don’t change, such as their love of the great classical repertoire which is, after all, the core of The Proms. Probably back in 1895 too, there were people who had heard Beethoven’s 5th Symphony a lot and people who were hearing it for the first time. It’s still true of the audiences today. There are people here who know the repertoire inside out, others who may know pieces but have never heard them live and then others who’ve never heard the repertoire at all. It’s that mix that makes the audience very special.

So much music is available now, so an audience doesn’t put music in quite the same categories that it once did. Perhaps the best example of that is the John Wilson Orchestra. If an audience is coming along and enjoying 20th century orchestral repertoire it will of course love fantastically well-played musical theatre that the John Wilson Orchestra might bring. The MGM Prom or the Rodgers and Hammerstein Prom are other examples.

Does the programme respond to audience tastes or inform them?
I think it has got to do both. You need to be aware of audience taste because this is a big festival and the only way we can do our job of introducing new and contemporary work is by knowing that we will get an audience for that work by playing something else that will attract them.

When you’ve got a hall that holds 6,000 people you can just imagine what might attract them – there’s a delicate balance with the programming. We do want to understand what the audience taste is and by doing that we can then take people further.

You announced new strands this year – Urban Classic Prom and BBC Music Prom. What was the impetus behind these?
Partly to help with audience development. In those two separate cases, urban classic is something that the BBC has been developing with Serious and Bigga Fish over the last six or seven years. Therefore we wanted to showcase this area of the BBC’s work so we included our colleagues from Radio 1 and Radio 1 Xtra. Radio 3 is home of The Proms but why not share some of the concerts around other stations and spread The Proms brand?

The 6 Music idea came from a programme on the station in which Steve Lamacq and Tom Service played different music to each other. I thought, ‘Why don’t we do that on stage?’ The artists involved – such as Cerys Matthews and Laura Marling – are already in this wonderful melting pot of music. Cerys doesn’t put music in a particular box. She just talks about music and whether it’s good or not. Genres cease to have meaning when you are bringing together a rich mix of artists.

How does the loyal Proms audience respond to that kind of programming?
I’m sure with the season ticket holders there will be concerts that these choose to come to and others that they don’t. What’s interesting is that you do get a wide spread of people who will come because it’s The Proms and they want to sample something new.

Do you have an audience-widening strategy?
Throughout its 118 years, The Proms has been about building audiences for classical music and building audiences generally for music. The remit is built into the vision.

How do you go about selecting new composers?
For me, that’s a key part of our planning. Even in the first few days we had the new commissions from Julian Anderson, David Matthews and Tom Ades. With those three you get a range of styles. And when you look right across the season, you’d be hard pushed not to see straight away the broad range of new music we are programming. That’s a really important part of it.

Are new British composers a risk?
The funny thing about risk is that often people don’t see the risk in The Proms because you can take a decision to programme something in what could be perceived as a bold move. But then when it’s a big success people don’t see it as a risk! It’s quite hard to remind people about the element of risk and the bravery in our programming when we seem to be successful at getting audiences here.

If you’re nervous about programming new music then that communicates a diffidence and uncertainty about it. You need to deliver new music with confidence.

Do you think new classical composition is in good shape?
I think we’re in a golden age of composition in terms of the range of composers in the UK at the moment. Not just the variety of styles but the quality of work. We are really blessed to be living in this particular era. The quality of work from the young composers right up to the established and published ones is astounding.

You can look right across the year and the regions and see the health of classical music, in orchestras, choirs, across the board. This is all happening against a backdrop of slightly unstable funding, uncertainty about teaching and music education. It’s almost as if we don’t deserve the quality of work that we’ve got.

Why is there such a boom at the moment?
People used to talk about Britain in the 19th century as ‘the land without music’. But I think we’re a very musical nation. There is important work happening across the full spread of Britain. There is a healthy infrastructure and public service broadcasting plays a big part in that.

Have you noticed that through your involvement in the British Composer Awards over the last decade?
I was chairman of the judges and it was always very difficult for them to decide simply because of the talent out there. Composers are working in an extraordinary range of styles and genres and locations. We are very lucky to have that.

It’s nice to see a lot of young composers working with youth orchestras. In that sense, Anna Meredith working with the National Youth Orchestra on her Hands Free project and Charlotte Bray working with the Aldeburgh World Orchestra – when you see young composers working with young artists, the energy is fantastic. You know those younger composers are growing up recognising how important new work is.

You can listen to M's BBC Proms inspired playlist here.