From a very young age, Roger Wright had an annual ritual. As soon as the BBC Proms programme was announced, he’d pore over the list of concerts, spotting patterns and making connections between items.
Now controller of Radio 3 and director of the Proms (he took over from Nicholas Kenyon in 2007), Wright retains the enthusiasm of a child in the world’s best toy shop. “The Proms audience is special,” he says. “There’s a particular quality of listening, a willingness to be taken further. As a planner, there is real pleasure in working with that.”
Marshalling composers, conductors and musicians from across the world into 75 concerts over the two-month festival is a spectacular feat of organisation. The key, says Wright, is the willingness to let the programme grow its own shape. Elements are shifted and sorted, like pieces of a vast mosaic, until a coherent “season” emerges.
“I’m the person with overall responsibility, but it is a team effort,” says Wright. “The Proms is a focus for the whole music industry and suggestions come in from all over the place – from my own colleagues on the Proms team and Radio 3, from BBC performance groups, from publishers, from the artists themselves, from people who want to visit with their own orchestras. The whole thing works on an orderly, organic cycle.
“By the time the 2013 Proms festival is beginning, 2014 is pretty much locked down. Because that’s just the way the classical music world works. We know broadly what’s happening in 2015 every night and some things are already pencilled in for 2016. But I don’t start, ever, with a blank piece of paper. It’s more like playing a game of cards – you suddenly see that you have the possibility of turning your ‘hand’ into something. You see that themes develop.”
Even the best laid plans of Proms directors can be overtaken by events. “At the time of the death of Princess Diana,” Wright recalls, “there was a piece on the schedule by John Adams called Short Ride in a Fast Machine. So of course the programme had to be changed. And there was the famous occasion when a fridge caught fire backstage at the Albert Hall and, very unusually, a Prom was cancelled because in putting the fire out, the amount of water in the building meant that the electrics weren’t safe.”
Fire and flood aside, the Proms takes creative risks, this year including a celebration of Doctor Who and Hollywood music, as well as fusion programmes featuring artists such as R&B rapper Maverick Sabre and punk band the Stranglers. If there are charges of dumbing down, Wright is confident that he’s working in the best tradition of Proms founder Henry Wood.
“The Proms is at core a Western classical music festival,” he says firmly. “But there are things at the margins of our planning, whether it be the first Gospel Prom, a third Doctor Who Prom or the first Urban Classic Prom, which are also a key strategic part of what the Proms has been about since 1895, which is finding new audiences for classical music.”
He’s also justly proud to be the instigator of the first ever free, main evening Prom. “Somebody said, ‘Why on earth would you put on Beethoven Nine as the free event?’ Well, why wouldn’t we want to get in an audience who may not know about Beethoven? It’s an opportunity to engage and they get Vaughan Williams and a new piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage thrown into the bargain.
Even for those who didn’t manage to get tickets, the fact that it’s one of the televised Proms and is love on Radio 3 means that there’s full public access to see and hear that event.”
With the BBC’s website (www.bbc.co.uk/ proms) increasing the Proms’ reach, Wright is keen to ensure that it’s not just the headlining events that reach the masses.
“Given the sheer size of the Proms, BBC red button would be quite hard for us, but we’re filming all of the Cadogan Chamber Concerts for the first time, and we’ll be putting those online.”
There are times, however, when less can still be more. The hot tickets this summer are Daniel Barenboim’s Ring cycle. Who knows what Wagner, with his insistence on Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), would say to a concert staging in the Albert Hall, but Wright accentuates the positive.
“Concert opera really works. You concentrate on the music in a particular way. Sometimes you can actually hear orchestral detail better. And there’s a sort of freedom the performers feel when they’re unencumbered by costumes, or production business or bits of scenery shifting about. And the fact that it’s Barenboim’s first Wagner opera in the UK means it will be a real treat.”
Averse to talk of “highlights” (“As soon as I talk about one, another 26 appear”), Wright emphasises instead the value of a context. “Some people might think it perverse to celebrate the Britten centenary by having an evening devoted to Tippett’s opera The Midsummer Marriage. But it’s hard to tell the Britten story without telling the Tippett story. Britten cast a shadow, in the best sense, over the whole of 20th-century music. You can’t appreciate that without reference to some of those other really significant composers.
“Part of our job,” he goes on, “is to tell the story behind each of the concerts – the context of the piece, where the performers are in their careers, what the relationships are between conductors and orchestras. This is what adds up to a real event. It’s what the Proms is for.”