The Proms: World's Biggest Music Festival

Janos Gereben on July 9, 2013
2012’s Last Night of the Proms
2012’s Last Night of the Proms

Beginning July 12, there will be 57 consecutive evenings of hundreds of thousands people jamming the enormous Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms, millions watching the concerts (available in the UK only, alas!), and tens of millions listening both live and in podcasts.

Music News will keep track of these great (and free) concerts all summer long, broadcast at the convenient West Coast time of 11:30 a.m. Here is a Financial Times weekend feature about the Proms by Andrew Clark:

It is known as the "bull-run." You walk up a narrow tunnel from an underground corridor, and suddenly you are in the arena, swamped by glaring lights and expectant faces, your every gesture watched by thousands. But there are no bulls and the atmosphere is not gladiatorial. This bull-run is in the heart of London, and those who walk it are musicians, eager to open hearts and minds through their performances.

Welcome to the BBC Proms. The summer season of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall begins Friday and Roger Wright, Proms director, will be waiting backstage to wish his soloists luck as they enter the bull-run, telling newcomers not to be put off by the proximity to the audience. "I pass on what other artists have told me," he says. "Going out there is like getting a huge shot of adrenalin. The atmosphere hits you. Although it can be noisy when you arrive on stage, it becomes magically still when the performance is about to begin."
At Broadcasting House, Wright’s desk sits a heartbeat from Breakfast’s studio on the third floor. Apart from the presenter, two producers and a newsreader, the place is deserted at 8am. With jacket and shoes discarded to reveal pullover and socks in matching lavender, Wright checks the station’s log of overnight phone messages and starts replying to emails (“I only get boring ones”): a disconsolate Prommer wonders why the 2013 season shows scant acknowledgment of the Verdi bicentenary; a BBC colleague wants to co-ordinate first world war commemorative programming with the 2014 Proms; a music publisher is seeking a Proms premiere for a new work in 2015. Planning stretches three years ahead. The 2014 season is complete, 2015 scarcely less so.

"Far more ideas are put to us than we can contain in one season," says Wright. "Most of my job is about saying 'no,' and a lot is plain admin. The notion that I sit here every day thinking creative thoughts couldn’t be further from the truth." Despite that disavowal, a form of collective creativity is essential if Wright and his staff of 20 are to make a Proms season that matches BBC schedules, top artists’ availability and audience expectations. And next to collective creativity, what about political sensitivity? There is a perception outside Broadcasting House that the Proms have been embracing a more populist agenda in recent years, in response to public pressure for the BBC to justify its licence fee.