When the Proms season was announced, some headlines screamed “It’s all gone Pete Tong”. I wasn’t terribly surprised.
What had got the critics worked up was the fact that the “daddy of dance music” and doyen of Radio 1, Pete Tong, is staging a club night at the venerable BBC Proms this summer – another concert will include a grime symphony, broadcast on Radio 1Xtra.
Of course, turning the Royal Albert Hall into an arena full of dance-crazed ravers was going to ruffle some feathers (and the papers do love a good headline). But this was never about attention-grabbing on the part of the festival organisers.
Fusing musical styles, bringing digital artists together with the power of an acoustic symphony orchestra, is just part of a long Proms tradition of innovation. After all, this is the classical music festival that set out to be as inclusive and broad as possible from its earliest days.
Since 1895, when the Proms were co-founded by conductor Sir Henry Wood, the festival has had a clear mission: to present the widest range of music, performed to the highest standards, to the largest possible audience.
In 2015, the Proms remain true to that aim. This summer you can hear Bach’s solo cello suites, Beethoven’s piano concertos, more than 20 world premieres and the greatest hits of Leonard Bernstein and Frank Sinatra.
But what has been reported, with much finger-wagging, is the BBC teetering worryingly at the top of a slippery slope where it dares to forsake the peaks of musical integrity for base musical inclusivity. They want us to believe that in looking to the future, in trying to engage the audience of tomorrow, the Proms is losing sight of its past.
What a load of old cobblers. These self-elected snobs and scaremongers are not there to fight for the universal power that great music unleashes; what they want is to “protect” classical music, and high culture at large, from the onslaught of mass entertainment.
But great music has always had the power to move both heart and head; to store the guts – and, at times, the feet. And electronic dance music is dazzling in its primal energy; an unstoppable surge of beats, breaks and melodies that carries you in its wake.
I love dancing to an addictive club anthem as much as I adore listening, in the stillness of a concert hall, to a Brahms symphony.
And though I treasure Mozart’s operas, I’ll never tire of the pin-sharp rhymes and rhythms of great rap. Who says you’re not allowed to enjoy all of it?
What rappers like Wretch 32 and Skepta will encounter is the chance to create their gritty, urban, compulsive music in a new way – accompanied by a symphony orchestra and the brilliant conductor Jules Buckley. The results will be mind-blowing.
As for the argument that a couple of late-night Proms, out of 92 sensational classical concerts, are the tip of the iceberg for Proms armageddon, I’d say that in 2004 when the English National Opera played a live set at Glastonbury there were no cries of dismay that Glasto’s essential core of rock and pop acts had been diluted by classical interlopers.
Great music festivals must embrace great music, in its many guises – and the Proms must do more so than any other. After all, it’s been in the contract since 1895.
Suzy Klein is one of the BBC Proms presenters. The First Night of the Proms is on Friday 17th July, live on Radio 3 at 7.30pm, starting on BBC2 at 8pm.
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