It’s the unexpected events in life that can keep the BBC Proms particularly interesting, as David Pickard found out in his first season as Director. With around 50% of the programme’s events already set in place by his predecessor, David was busy putting the finishing touches of his contribution together in January 2016 when the death of David Bowie led him to add a tribute to the rock and pop legend to the 2016 festival. David says: “It’s important that we can react to these events to reflect the mood and spirit of the nation, and it felt completely appropriate that we marked the music of an artist who meant so much to so many”.
Rolling out the welcome mat
Indeed, it is a growing awareness of people’s diverse needs that continues to drive the ever-evolving culture of the festival, and a more inclusive approach to its programmes. Its latest addition – The Relaxed Prom – has been designed to provide a comfortable environment for all audiences. It has a particular focus on facilitating an informal atmosphere for children and adults, with a wide range of sensory and physical impairments, to enjoy an orchestral concert. There will be changes such as auditorium doors left open and designated ‘chill out’ spaces, while the BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform.
For the first time since 1930, the Proms are travelling out of London. The festival is heading north to Hull, (this year’s UK City of Culture winner), for an open air concert at Stage@TheDock where the Royal Northern Sinfonia will perform Handel’s Water Music suites. It was first performed 300 years ago at a river party on the Thames for George I.
Not surprisingly, there are some nerves regarding the logistics and mechanics of such a feat. However, after 14 years as General Director of Glyndebourne, David isn’t too fazed with trickier or alternative venues – ‘I just pray it doesn’t rain!’
As with every year, there is the pressure to balance more traditional expectations with concerts that might appeal to different audiences. The BBC Concert Orchestra’s performance of John Williams’ best-loved scores (in honour of his 85th birthday) will be no doubt be an extremely popular event – as fun and accessible for fans at the Royal Albert Hall, as it is for those watching at home on TV.
However, David is “particularly proud” of the breadth of contemporary pieces this year, which he describes as ‘extremely good pieces’ that have wide appeal.
One of David’s top recommendations for new music is Anders Hillborg’s ‘hugely atmospheric’ Sirens, which will premiere at the Royal Albert Hall. David is also excited by the work of American composer Missy Mazzoli, who makes her debut at the Proms this year – she was recently described as ‘Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart’ by Time Out New York.
Perhaps one of the most alternative spaces this year for contemporary works is the Tanks at Tate Modern. Once used for storing oil, it will be brought back to life by performances that will include a collaboration between the London Contemporary Orchestra and London-based electronic artist Actress. These cutting-edge explorations aim to reach out to, as BBC Radio 3 broadcaster Sara Mohr-Pietsch puts it “a growing audience of adventurous listeners for whom the usual distinctions between music, art, architecture, theatre and dance just don’t exist in the same way.”
As much as contemporary music encourages us to look ahead and embrace the new, there is a certain tone of solemnity in this year’s programme. The marking of several extremely significant historical events invites audiences to explore the powerful impact they’ve had on composers’ works.
Rachmaninov is just one of the Russian composers who will be celebrated to mark the 100 year anniversary of the October Revolution. As if sensing his country was heading for a seismic shift – where not only old beliefs would be questioned but obliterated – Rachmaninov composed the All Night Vigil (Vespers), now hailed as ‘the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church’. This will be performed by The Latvian Radio Choir, alongside his Piano Concerto No 3. in D minor and Symphony No 2.
The Proms also marks 500 years since the Reformation. In a world that is still arguably reeling from its effects, it’s interesting to see that composers of the present day are still inspired by Martin Luther’s chorale – Cheryl Frances Hoad’s prelude Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott and Jonathan Dove’s prelude Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam will both premiere on Reformation Day.
As David comments: “Composers have always looked to the past to find new ways of reinventing – they don’t always need to look ahead for it.”
From the Reformation to the Referendum, our concepts of Europe and our relationship to it continue to change. Although Sir James Macmillan wrote European Requiem before last summer’s result, it resonates as a piece that reflects the issues Europe is currently wrestling with. Interestingly, Sir James felt drawn to set the texts in Latin because it “represented the ideal rediscovering of the common European language that existed before nationalist barriers were erected.”
From our commonalities to our differences, questions surrounding diversity still pervade. Although David acknowledges there is still much to be done to tackle disparities, he is proud of what has been achieved in this year’s programme. Out of all the world premieres at the Proms this year there is an almost 50/50 gender split, and out of the nine conductors making their debut, three are women.
The Chineke! Orchestra will also make its BBC Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall in August this year – with a performance including the premiere of Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers. This is a decision that David is quick to assert is not about tokenism but rather the quality of the music that the orchestra makes. He says: “We wouldn’t be doing anybody a service by bringing in anything other than a first rate orchestra.”
Whatever the future brings, The Proms’ popularity endures. Perhaps this is because, to some extent, the performances create a refuge from whatever’s going on in the outside world. As David comments, the atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall is always incredibly intense “When the performers feed off that energy, it helps them to give unique, incredible performances.”