Interview with Nicholas Kenyon, Controller BBC Proms
TOM CRANN: First I thought we'd talk about the mission of the Proms and I found this line about the original intent of the Proms: "to train the public to create a public for classical and modern music." Now are you still trying to do that?
NICHOLAS KENYON: The Proms started off with a very evangelical aim of trying to bring people to music and I think over the last 100 years Britain has become a much more musical culture and people are actively interested in classical music but there's always a need for the new generation to come to classical music for the first time and for the enthusiasts that exist to have their horizons broadened by a whole range of new and interesting work. So yes, I think our aim with the Proms is exactly the same as Henry Wood's was over a century ago, which is to do the widest possibly repertory of music, the highest possible quality of performances and to bring all that to people in an informal setting so they don't feel constrained by the circumstances under which they listen to the music. I think the atmosphere of the Proms has always been an incredibly important part of the equation of attending the concerts and that's one of the reasons that people are prepared to try the new music that's being offered because they know that fundamentally they will enjoy the experience of going to a Prom, it will be something special for them and they've come to trust our taste in terms of the music that we put on.
Describe the concert-going experience for someone who's never been. I had a neighbor ask last night, "is this akin to a Pops concert in this country?" And I said "no, it's a bit different."
The Proms is a hugely popular festival of classical music. They're not exactly like American Pops concerts because the repertory can be very challenging, very serious, the content more like American orchestral subscription concerts with a mixture of classics and new works. But what is absolutely distinctive about the Proms is where they are performed—the Royal Albert Hall, this huge round building originally erected at the end of the 19th century but used for the Proms since the 1940s—and the unique thing about it is that the whole ground area is cleared of seats and the audience stands. They're on the ground and then there are seats all around the hall. And what this creates is a completely different dynamic from most other concert halls because instead of sitting looking forward, because the hall is circular, you're incredibly aware of people around, the orchestra and the audience as a communal experience. Because the people who stand in the middle, the people who paid the least, that gives an incredibly intense energy to the audience right in the middle. So here we have this round hall, a communal experience and a really hard core of devoted people listening in the middle and I think one of the things that's absolutely distinctive about the Proms as every orchestra would say, they get an extraordinary quality of listening and attention from the audience.
Tell me more about those Prommers.
The main thing about the Proms is that it draws a younger audience profile than of classical concerts in London. This is a great concern for orchestras everywhere… At the Proms, it seems to happen because of this Promming experience, standing in the middle, they don't have to dress up, they don't have to know how to behave. Because the concerts are fun, there's not such a great weight of tradition on them. So the Proms is an important symbol of how classical music can draw a younger audience. It's not true to say that people who come to the Proms never go to other concerts, but the Proms is the main focus of their concert experience. The Proms draws people from a wider area of Britain, they can travel far from outside London. So it's a very widely drawn audience. There aren't as many tourists as you would think, maybe because the Proms is perceived as a British institution, but through series like this, we want to show that the Proms is an international institution.
The scope of the Proms: chamber music, lectures, film, jazz. What is the scope?
One of the first things that I wanted to do when I took over the Proms in 1996 was to show that they could attract a new audience, that they were a great tradition that could be freshened up and broadened. We do many concerts in Albert Hall over the summer—over 70—so there's not much one could do to expand that, but there are things to increase the accessibility and availability of the concert to a wide audience. One of the first things we introduced on the last night of the Proms is called Proms in the Park, which is a relay of that famous first concert into Hyde Park, and with that music making and stars who come to perform, we've created a unique combination of live music and big screen relay which now regularly draws 40,000 people to the park and now we've expanded to around the country. This year, for the first time, we'll be in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the last night, which takes us to a new stage of the Proms.
The other thing that makes it unique is that every single concert is broadcast live on Radio 3. So they're all available free at the flick of the switch and now internationally on the web… Increasingly television has been an important part with the launch of BBC's digital TV channel 4 which relays the fortnight of the Proms.
Another thing we've done is launch a linked series of smaller concerts and on Monday lunch times those are a regularly sold out and very popular feature of smaller scale performances relating to the themes of the Proms anniversary composers at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Albert Hall is a big venue and it needs big performances to work well, and we want to represent small scale works, too. We also inaugurated the annual Proms lecture, this year given by director Peter Sellars, in previous years we've had the architect Daniel Libeskind, the cultural theorist and historical George Steiner. One major international figure speaking to us which is broadcast on Radio 3, but again it compliments the themes of the Proms and brings them to life for a wider audience.
Obviously there's a huge logisitical challenge to broadcast these concerts; tell me how this festival fits into the BBC schedule.
The Proms was taken over by the BBC in 1927 when it had been running for a couple of decades, but had hit financial problems. The BBC was a new organization and absolutely needed live music, played nightly for its broadcast audiences. Ever since, the Proms has really been at the heart of the BBC's investment in cultural life for the benefit of all its audiences. That's been constant through the years. Of course, as they've become bigger, it has become a huge operation involving many different areas. As director of the Proms, I have lots of people working for me, from the people who manage the concerts, the people who market the concerts, the people who put together the paper program for the concert. But we couldn't do it without two collaborators: The Royal Albert Hall and their staff who run the shows from the stage changes and loading in and out… The other is the broadcast side and Radio 3; they are very close partners and television is another presence in the hall. And I suppose that there are so many other areas of the BBC that get involved in the Proms. We've had a very good collaboration over all, for instance, with the BBC marketing department who have advertised them very widely around the country. So I think the BBC realizes the value of the Proms, it entertains people during the season to show them what's going and simply highlights all the good work that the BBC does in bringing all this music at incredibly reasonable prices to the widest possible public.
Now these days the buzzword for business and even the arts has become 'branding.' Talk about the Proms as a brand and the public perception of the average Briton of the Proms.
Well, I realize if you say the word 'Prom' to an American it means something completely different to what it means to us.
Right, a high school dance
The word Prom comes from the original title 'promenade' concerts referring to the fact that the audience stands for these concerts and can walk around the arena. But Proms has become a huge successful brand now and what we mean by brand is nothing cynical, it is something very real which is very real which is a guarantee of quality, a guarantee of popularity and a guarantee of accessibility and I think that people now know that if they're searching for classical music, the Proms is the place where they will find great classical music very well performed. And even if don't know a whole lot about it, if they don't know exactly what they want, they can rest assured that they if they come to the Proms they will hear something stimulating, something interesting and if it's a challenging new work or a difficult new work it's worth 15 or 20 minutes of their time to encounter that, whether in the end they decide if it's something they want to pursue or not. So I think that is the success of the idea of the Proms and the fact that it is a powerful brand now means that on our poster sites this year all we have is a glimpse of the Albert Hall, the word 'Proms' and a rising sun for the letter O in middle of the word "Proms" and it doesn't need any explanation at all. People recognize what it is.
I want to get back to the Royal Albert Hall and move on to the famous last night. If you could, Mr. Kenyon, tell me about the hall itself.
Well the Royal Albert Hall is a unique building. It was built in the latter part of the 19th Century as a hall for arts and sciences and it was as much intended for great meetings and speeches as it was for music. It is in an ampitheatre style so it's round, there are boxes, stalls swirling around the hall. It's an enormously impressive building and the closest analogy would be to one of those great coliseums in Rome or Nimes or those ancient buildings it was clearly inspired by. The sense of it being round and drawing people together is very powerful musically because it envelops the orchestra within the great circle of the hall and people feel that they are part of one community. Now that is even more the case on the last night when the hall is decorated with flags… of all sorts of nations… including European flags and as we found on the fateful year when we had to do the Proms shortly after Sept. 11, there were American flags there too. When it's decorated in this way for the last night there is an incredible sense of atmosphere and occasion in the Albert Hall.
How many people can fit in when it is fully packed for a Proms concert?
When it's fully packed, almost 5,000, of whom about 1500 will be standing either in the arena or the gallery. I've actually seen it fuller than that when people are really squeezed in, but it is a fantastic atmosphere and that many, 5,000 people, is far greater than the capacity of a standard concert hall and so it's a considerable challenge to fill it day after day, but a wonderful atmosphere when it is filled.
Tell me a little bit more about the atmosphere, specifically on that last night. How would you characterize, for someone who hadn't been there, what it is?
The last night of the Proms is really one of the great events in the whole classical music calendar and so famous that it's been imitated all over the world. It's a huge celebration of classical music for people and tickets sell out immediately, you have to queue up if you want to get into the arena. There's a great sense of anticipation and thrill about having got your ticket for the last night of the Proms and then being there. There are various traditional elements which are always part of the last night of the Proms: Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March with the singing of "Land of Hope and Glory," the sea songs that Henry would arrange in the first years of the Proms ending with singing "Rule Britannia" and that great hymn "Jerusalem." Those are the fixed points of the Proms' last night program. But we've also tried to make the last night as important a concert as we possibly can and to draw into international stars. This year… We aim for the last night of the Proms to be a great concert.
English people I know who live here in the United States, criticize Americans for being very "flag waving." They generally say that the English are not a flag waving sort, however the patriotic mood of the last night can seem a bit jingoistic if you're not used to it to some tastes, but you don't think it's out of place in modern day England.
I think what we've seen in the last few years is a sort of reclaiming of all those traditional elements by the public at large. Maybe there was a period when they looked like being annexed by the right and the far right, but if you think back to the jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth which happened last year, a million people thronging central London and singing exactly those songs, the traditional songs which English people use to celebrate together. I think one simply shouldn't become too hung up on the nationalistic aspects of all this. What the last night of the Proms is really about is communities gathering together to sing and sing together the things that they know best and that joy in music making and joy in people coming together is what the Proms is about and it's what the last night specifically expresses and celebrates.
And if you haven't been through a last night, either by recordings or in person, you might think, "Oh, there's this festival, this carnival atmosphere and yet there's serious music making." Talk about how you reconcile that—the popularity and high quality.
Well of course one of the problems with the last night of the Proms going around the world on its own is that people tend to think that every concert is like that and it's not. You need to imagine the last night of the Proms as the moment when people who have listened to 71 concerts let their hair down and have a bit of fun on the 72 nd concert. But even on the last night, there is very serious music making going on, there are choral works… I think what we manage to achieve at the Proms is a combination of high quality performances, which are really well rehearsed, and a popular appeal because people don't feel over-awed by the Proms, they don't feel they have to sit rigidly in their seat, they don't have to put a tie on, they don't have to behave in any particular way. That results in a huge concentration on the music. Yes the Proms are fun, yes they're informal, but as the first notes of a Bruckner of a Mahler symphony get going, you can sense the concentration in the hall and that will last the 50 minutes or hour's length of that symphony and it's something that we're incredibly proud of—that the audience is so attentive and listens to every note. But then, everybody has a good time, there's an enormous atmosphere among the people who are standing, there are collecting boxes going around for musical charities and this was something recognized incidentally by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip who came to a Prom earlier in this season and remaining remote in the royal boxes, actually came down to the front and met the promenaders and chatted to them in the interval of the concert. The idea that the Proms are informal is a very important one, but it doesn't detract from the high standards of performance or the concentration with which they are listened to.
It seems this year there's a real emphasis on contemporary music, contemporary composers, including a good number of world premiers. Talk more about that as your mission.
Well from the earliest years, the Proms has been committed to new music. The first conductor of the Proms, Henry Wood, always introduced what he called his "novelties" to the season. The Proms has acquired a reputation for being a place where new music is heard. William Glock, who planned the Proms in the 1960s and 70s, brought a whole range of European avante garde music into the season for the first time. That tradition has continued and we have tried to develop it, because one thing that we find is that Proms audiences have enormously open ears and they're prepared to try anything. Mixed programming doesn't work elsewhere and people prefer to ghetto-ize new music and we find to put some new music into a predominantly classical program is something that audiences respect and are willing to give a try. So we have a huge range of new music. This year… Boston Concerto by Eliot Carter; John Adams on Transmigration of Souls…What we aim to represent at the Proms is a huge range of new music that's being written today. We commission works ourselves… but we also aim to represent the best of new music that's being written around the world and bring that to audiences here.
Tell me more about young composer selected for the last night, Joseph Fibbs, and his piece.
Well, Joe Fibbs is still in his twenties, but he wrote a very successful piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra called "In Camera" (?) and Leonard Slatkin, the chief conductor, was very impressed with this piece and in fact he conducted with the BBC Orchestra and brought it back to America and conducted it with his Washington Orchestra. And so when we were thinking about what to do on the last night this year, it seemed a natural thing to ask Joe Fibbs if he would write a short, sharp, new piece for this occasion. So I rang him up and asked him out of the blue, there was a stunned silence on the phone, and he said he would. I haven't yet seen the piece, but we're looking forward to it very much and he is a master writer for the orchestra so I think it will make a great impact.
I wanted to ask you about Leonard Slatkin who's in his third season. There must have been some hesitancy to put an American in charge. Was that ever a consideration? Is he the first non-English conductor?
He is not the first non-English conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I think what we have to just make a slight distinction is between the Proms as a whole and the BBC Orchestra, which is the house orchestra of the Proms that does the most concerts in the season. I think we were all so delighted that Leonard Slatkin, who is one of music's great communicators, was prepared to take on the role of the chief conductor of the BBC Orchestra. And I think, although he isn't the first non-English person to have conducted the last night of the Proms, he is an American and I think it's a symbol of that fact that the Proms is now such an international institution. It is something that isn't just a British affair, but having said which, Leonard was more than keen to enter into the British traditions of the last night because he is a noted advocate of British music and has recorded some of the greatest performances of British music of this century. It has really been a good coming together and the new idea of the Proms as a worldwide institution and not just a British institution.
Tell me about the tradition of inviting other orchestras. How long has that been going on and is that an effort to make it more international?
The tradition of inviting foreign orchestras to the Proms is not as old as one might think. The Proms has been going now for 108 years, but it was only in the middle of the 1960s that any non-British orchestras came to the Proms. Difficult to imagine this, but for the first years of the Proms it was the same orchestras playing every night. One can't imagine how they found time to rehearse as well and it must have been absolutely exhausting for them, but things were very different in those days. A lot of the repertory was repeated, for instance. But when we got past that period and foreign orchestras starting arriving in the 1960s it really did change the whole idea of the Proms, but now I think the Proms is one of the must-see venues of any foreign orchestra on its international tour. This year, for instance… We see regularly the American orchestras who are touring through Europe for the summer and the Prom is a place where they want to be. We may not be as lavish as other venues in paying them, and we certainly are very constrained by our economics in that respect, but those orchestras that have a real artistic interest in being seen by the best audiences want to be at the Proms and want to come back regularly. What we now see is panoply of international orchestras coming through the Proms and its something which gives it a very strong international character. When you get something like the first appearance of the new partnership of the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle, I think that will be an event that everyone will want to be at.
That is the first time they have appeared together?
May I ask the indelicate question of the budget of the Proms?
Certainly, the Proms cost about 6 ½ million pounds to put on each summer and that's including absolutely everything: the artists, hiring the hall and even the BBC paying its own orchestras to perform so there's nothing free in that. Now in that 6 ½ million pounds, we get about 3 ½ million pounds back at the box office. That's a very healthy equation, it means we're getting over half of our costs back at the box office, but it also means the BBC, for all the broadcasting, is putting about 3 million pounds of subsidy and support into the equation. I suppose that is very much like the private support or sponsorship that companies or individuals put into symphony concerts or opera houses in the United States, but it's a fundamentally different equation because we, I, do not have to go out and get that money. All I have to do is argue a good case for it internally at the BBC and the BBC is happy to support the Proms in that way so it's an exceptionally stable undertaking from that point of view, not dependant on uncertainties of fundraising. Of course it's dependant upon uncertainties on the box office and how concerts do, but the equation gives us a very good basis for planning future years.
Personal question… relay your favorite Proms memory either as a concertgoer or as controller of the Proms.
Well, as director I can't have a favorite Prom because my favorite Prom is always the next one I'm going to hear. The very first experience I had at the Proms… I was not brought up in London so I did not go to the Proms as a teenager. I was brought up in the north of England in Manchester, but I sang in a church choir and came down to London for a summer school and we were taken to a rehearsal of a Prom in Albert Hall in the early 1960s and it turned out to be Jacqueline Dupré playing the Elgar cello concerto with Sir Malcolm Sargeant and that was an absolutely unforgettable experience in rehearsal and it made me want to learn the cello, which I did for a few years although I never became any good at it. And my experience at the Proms started there. I came back on many occasions. But I suppose one of the most memorable Proms I experienced on the radio involved another cellist, Rostropovich, playing with the USSR state symphony orchestra on the day that Russia had invaded Czechoslovakia and that was an enormously powerful evening because he was playing a Czech piece, Dvorak's cello concerto, with a Russian orchestra. There were protests in the hall, it was a very emotional occasion altogether, but in the end absolutely triumphant music making. There have been so many memorable Proms occasions with different conductors over the years, Claudio Abbado and Marta Auguerich… One of the things the Proms can do is heighten the emotions of those moments so that they really do stick in the mind and are absolutely unforgettable.
Is the Proms the world's greatest musical festival?
Well, it's a tag that we didn't write ourselves, but was written about us, and I suppose I'm proud and happy that the Proms is described as the world's greatest music festival. You could argue about other festivals that involve Opera…. But I think in terms of orchestral music, there is no doubt that it is the biggest and most wide-ranging festival in the world. That's something we're very committed to uphold. WE don't use that phrase lightly, but as a challenge to live up to and a challenge which means the Proms has constantly to renew itself and refresh itself. One of the great issues of today is how great institutions do move on into a new century. The Proms is over 100 years old and it has a great history behind it, but it would be absolutely fatal if it relied only on that tradition. What we're trying to do is recreate the Proms as a vital, lively, committed place for music, new music and adventurous music as we enter a new century and as whole new generations of people come to experience the fact that music can be a hugely uplifting and wonderful thing.