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BBC Proms 2010 Festival Preview

Friday, 23 July 2010 , ora 16.59

The World's Greatest Classical Music Festival - this is what the famous British festival's 2010 edition is all about; the sense of celebration, the festive spirit and the grand musical showdowns that have been announced in the concerts' schedules are some of the reasons we are looking forward to Radio Romania Music's series of live broadcasts from Royal Albert Hall and Cadogan Hall in London.

Event manager for the third time in a row, Roger Wright deals with the challenge of coordinating the BBC crew to organize all 89 events programmed between July 16 and September 11. From the sketch board to the final details, always alert about marketing and international transparency, using the latest in technology and a large range of broadcasting platforms, all those involved contribute to the festival's success with creativity, pride and professionalism, being aware at the same time of the valuable tradition they inherited. The proms-concerts initiated by Henry Wood are very popular among British, and as far as we are concerned, it offers the pleasant feeling that we are part of a global audience, internationally connected through music.

The 2010 edition of the BBC Proms Festival opens with a tribute to Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler, by celebrating his 150th birthday, and the first concert - as tradition demands - is held by the bands considered to be the heart of the festival - the BBC National Choir and Orchestra under the baton of main conductor Jiri Belohlavek. Of course, Symphony no. 8 ("Symphony of a Thousand") is performed by a large number of famous singers.

Roger Wright - the man with the difficult task of putting together the festival's puzzle of artistic events has accepted our invitation to make a review of the present edition, during an hour at Radio Romania Music, before the first live broadcast. .

Interview with Roger Wright - Director of BBC Proms Festival

Mr. Roger Wright, in the name of Radio Romania Music and all those music lovers out there in Romania who will enjoy this year's amazing concerts, I thank you for your presence here, and we are happy to have you as our guide through this maze of surprises and challenges of BBC proms, helping us to discover the festival's true spirit. To a greater extent, the present edition pays homage to founder Henry Wood.

It is true; one can notice the sustained effort during this year's edition to focus more on Henry Wood's personality, the man who founded the promenade-concerts in 1895. Besides, he has remained one of the most prolific conductors in the festival's history and a big supporter of classical music, reason enough to celebrate him this year, although the year marks no particular anniversary. I am excited that Romanian fans of classical music are here with us. They will have the opportunity to listen to a great number of concerts and to decode the festival's spirit.

Henry Wood - a symbol for all priceless ideas of the past, a respected personality, loved and valued nowadays still. At the same time, the constant updates in the shadows of the past also have an essential contribution to this festival's spirit.

Equally important is the sense of innovation that Henry Wood brought to the festival from the very beginning. His first wish was to bring quality classical music to the large public's attention, while his other wish was the sense of innovation for which he himself found a name: "novelties". And he did not refer only to the new music, but also to the less popular music amongst the general public. And I wish to believe that both this spirit of adventure as well as the ambition of a renowned festival is still present today. One of the ideas that were embraced by our public was the remake of the 1910 program, more precisely, the edition's last concert. So we decided to go back in time 100 years, to find out the musical content of that program and to bring it to life once again, in order to give the contemporary listener a historical dimension. On the other hand, we wait for the first auditions or the works ordered by BBC for contemporary composers and we search for new means of promoting the concerts. All these aspects are linked to the spirit of the festival, with one century old history.

Works that suite the concert hall - a signature of this year's program.

It is easy to notice how massive musical showdowns have conquered Royal Albert Hall, as a rebirth of those glamorous post-Händel times when oratories were presented with hundreds, even thousands of performers at the Crystal Palace.

Mahler's music celebration offers this dimension from the very beginning. Symphony no.8 was programmed in the opening concert for two reasons: its first global audition was 100 years ago, and Henry Wood first brought it to his British public 80 years ago, during the Proms Festival. It is a generous work, perfect for the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall and the BBC Choir and Orchestra - the bands that were involved in the 1930 concert - will be reunited under the baton of main conductor Jiűí Bìlohlávek to launch the 2010 edition in a grand manner… Works that suite the concert hall - a signature of this year's program. The public appreciates the large scale shows presented at Royal Albert Hall, and that is why we came prepared with one of the greatest musical debuts, starting with Mahler's Symphony no.8, then there is the Wagner's big show, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg with Bryn Terfel playing the role of Hans Sachs. After that, there is Simon Boccanegra de Verdi starring Placido Domingo. Thus, this is the opening weekend - Friday - Saturday - Sunday - with large scale performances that give this edition the sense of a festive opening.

Bach Special Day and Beethoven cycle

Glamour, festive spirit and anniversaries at Royal Albert Hall - this one of a kind concert hall that - I believe - stands by itself as a place of inspiration for the festival's director, when composing a season.

What is important for all of us involved in the planning of a season is the effort put in creating the spirit of the festival and at the same time, the effort of articulating the season that takes two months. A concert at least is programmed each evening, but there are days when this overlaps with midday or night concerts, so the agenda is very, very busy. We strived to offer more than one concert a day; there are special days, as well as special weekends. And we can say that this year, the program was developed differently. One example would be Bach Special Day, a day that starts with the entire Brandenburg concertos envisioned by Sir John Elliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists band. Then, at noon we reserved the Royal Albert Hall for an organ recital with the recently restored instrument. Late in the evening, we offer transcriptions of works that have been performed during the day, transcriptions made for complex orchestral forces by Henry Wood or by his British contemporary fellows. It will be yet another imposing concert that will end Bach Day in a festive manner. The special days are important marks during the festival's two months and an interesting alternative to the series of traditional concerts.

You told us about the special day dedicated to Johannn Sebastian Bach, but Beethoven is also celebrated in a series of concerts.

One of the past years' achievements was the large number of festivals - where we focused not only on composers, but artists as well. And this is one way of putting together certain musical events during the summer. In past editions, we invited Stephen Hough for the whole Tchaikovsky concert series; also, there were artists that attended symphonic concerts at Royal Albert Hall and chamber recitals at Cadgan Hall, and others attending matinee or nocturnal performances. This year, we are lucky to have Paul Lewis with us, a young, amazing British pianist and a fine connoisseur of Beethoven's style, who will interpret all of his five piano concertos. And it would be the first time in Proms' history that the complete cycle of these works is offered in one single edition. And this is only one of the examples in which an artist attends more concerts.

Important musical personalities are actively involved

Mr. Roger Right, you emphasized the fact that performers play a very important role in this game, sometimes, they are even a unifying element in the festival's program. Can you mention other big names, charismatic personalities that are regular appearances each year and who have the gift of turning concerts in true spectacles?

During these two months, the festival will be attended by many well-known personalities of the music world. Valeri Gergiev is among those present, we are also very excited to be expecting Placido Domingo once again or Bryn Terfel. Simon Rattle who will offer us two performances in the company of his orchestra, The Berlin Philharmonic; he will also be conducting The Age of Enlightenment Orchestra. The second act of Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner will be played with historical instruments - the promise of an exciting musical evening. Sir Eliot Gardiner is not only participating during Bach Day, he will also be conducting The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers. These are important musical personalities for us and we are pleasantly surprised to see how they are actively involved in the festival.

And, of course, the main characters of this wonderful game you are arbitrating remain the BBC bands - the heart and soul of the BBC Proms Festival.

The BBC bands are known as the festival's resident ensembles and it would be impossible for us to organize the event to this extent without the implication of the BBC orchestra and choir. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is seen as an orchestra - the host of the festival that is given the mission to play two extremely important concerts - The First and The Last Night at Proms as well as many other concerts during the festival. Moreover, the BBC bands have the very important role of presenting new music and special works ordered by BBC, that we are able to program in advance. We appreciate their skilfulness in the performance of this kind of repertoire.

A breath of fresh air for contemporary music at Proms

The festival's mission: to win the public not only for classical music but for contemporary music as well. What can you tell us about this year's works, ordered by the festival and first auditions?

First of all, we notice a breath of fresh air for contemporary music at Proms, when we see the composers and their new works. There is a diversity of names that bring a diversity of styles, which is representative for the contemporary stage. New sounds are strongly encouraged in Great Britain. We are probably crossing one of the most convenient musical periods of all times. We notice a great number of composer names present in the festival, which are not all British. There are important international composers on the list. And I believe it is one of the festival's mission perpetuated over time, to acquaint the public with new opposites, by programming them with familiar works. For example, the Cologne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov is suggesting a first audition by Gunther Schuller. There will probably be people at the audition that will come for the Mendelssohn's violin and orchestra Concert or for the Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony and who have never been familiar with Gunther Schuller's work, but the concert is a good opportunity for them to experience something new in the context of familiar works. This programming strategy was initiated by Henry Wood himself and it is one of the keys to success that we kept as a tradition.

Ways to win new public

The BBC Proms Festival in the eyes of the public - it is probably the most important perspective and I am sure that there is always the constant concern of winning new listeners, by using new technologies, different platforms, interaction. What news is there on this topic?

I think there are actually two ways to win over a new public for the festival. First, as we already discussed, is programming, and besides the classical music concerts - the heart of the BBC Proms festival - there are other genres as well. There are two evenings dedicated to musicals, first to the couple Rodgers - Hammerstein, and then to Stephen Sondheim, celebrating his 80th birthday. And we know, from past experiences that these types of concerts like the one by Jamie Cullum - a nocturnal jazz concert - will bring a new kind of public to the Proms, a public that might be coming for the first time, a public that has never seen Royal Albert Hall, but excited and happy for the musicals and the jazz concerts offered by our mixed program. We also haven't forgotten about the world-music genre, and we are happy to have Ilham al-Madfai from Iraq join us. He will collaborate with Khyam Allami, his disciple and the beneficiary of the BBC World Routes Academy program. They will play Iraqi music. This integration of outside-Europe music in the festival's agenda is a very important step in the satellite-programming.

Another way to win new audience is to promote by means of radio, television, interactions. And we can say that this year we have a great number of televised concerts, there are about 30 events that can bee seen on British TV; others are broadcast abroad as well. And, as far as media is concern, the BBC contribution has been essential, since the festival was bought in 1927. It was the moment that marked the beginning of a continuous process of innovation through new technologies to attract new public. As far as interaction is concerned, the operators will be given the opportunity to obtain a comment of the conductors' actions - a camera will be placed permanently on the conductor's desk. The performers will also be given the chance to share their experiences during the concerts… There will be all sorts of comments on the event, to create a full context for listeners.

The Internet is probably gaining a lot of advantages, by becoming one of the communication platforms for music lovers.

Absolutely. We receive a lot of mails, questions we answer through our blogs, we can suggest new projects, like the recent launch of the festival's entire database that we have provided the public with. Now everybody can enjoy the Proms history, using the desired search engine, sorted by artists or composers, orchestras, ensembles, or a certain work. And this can be done for all Proms concerts, since 1895. Thus, each year, we search for new ways to promote the brand.

As far as audience is concerned, in these difficult times, with the financial crisis and all, you managed to keep the promenade-concerts' tickets at a low price, and thus, giving all the chance to quality music. Was it difficult to comply with this Henry Wood's golden rule?

It was very important that we kept the price of the tickets low. Another aspect that is part of Proms' tradition is our responsibility to fill thousands of seats in the concert halls, this being the main reason for which we kept the same ticket price, 5 ₤. The message we are trying to spread is that our music is accessible for everyone. As you can imagine, it is not easy to keep the budget under control, however, it is possible with the support of BBC. The organization's contribution to this festival is about 6 million ₤, which enables us not only to sign contracts with many of the most prestigious artists, but also to offer their performance for a very small fee.

One of the best jobs in the world of classical music

Mr. Roger Wright, we ask you for one last intervention in our interview. Describe your past years' experience as the festival's director. During our last discussion on the same topic, two years ago, you described your job as a mission to put together this colourful landscape of musical events like a very complicated puzzle. Do you still keep the same perspective?

It is indeed a complicated puzzle, but at the same time, it is the most cheerful and enjoyable of what could be imagined; it is a true privilege to be in this position, as a treasure keeper. I am aware of the festival's tradition and heritage and of the fact that, one day, I will entrust the keys to the Proms castle to my successor. I think of it as my duty to respect this heritage and tradition in this world we are living in. And that is why I strongly believe in the important connection between the festival and the media: it is one of the ways to communicate the festival's message to a larger public.

Yes, the BBC proms festivals still remains a complicated puzzle for me and I am grateful to have such colleagues that make the programming and the organization of the concerts possible. I look at my mission as one of the best jobs in the world of classical music.

Roger Wright studied at Chetham's School of Music (Manchester), obtaining a music diploma at the University of London. After that, he became the Director of the British Music Information Centre, managing the largest collection of contemporary music in Great Britain.

He collaborated with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra as producer and artistic counsellor (1989 - 1992); after that, he was appointed Executive Producer and Vice-President of Deutsche Grammophon (DG), a classical music record company.

From March 1997, he occupied managerial positions at BBC Radio 3, and in Octobre 2007, he became the director of BBC Proms Festival.

He now coordinates four of BBC's bands (BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers). In 2005 he was awarded the British Orchestras Association prize, for outstanding contributions brought to the concert world.

Alina Velea
Translated by Andra Stroe and Andreea Velicu
MA Students, MTTLC, Bucharest University