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David Benedict: Theatre should tune into BBC Proms for ways to boost accessibility

I was 11 years old, terrified in a strange building and I blame Antony Hopkins. No, not the one who played Hannibal Lecter, the other one: the composer. He’d written A Time for Growing, a vast oratorio for soloists, dancers, double choir and orchestra and I was singing it with my school choir. I’d got my head around this new work over the term spent rehearsing it in music rooms, but I was completely unprepared for the majesty of the concert venue: the Royal Albert Hall.

I’d never seen it before, let alone been inside, and at some point during our first day there I went to the loo and, emerging, realised I was lost. Trying to find the stage entrance, I went round and round the building, walking then running through the empty circular corridor with fear flooding through my body as I grew more and more frightened that I might never find my way out.

The memory of all that flooded back last week at Battersea Arts Centre’s similarly majestic Grand Hall, so magnificently restored by architect Steve Tompkins [1], an achievement that cemented him at the top of The Stage 100 this year. I was there for something not, on the face of it, theatrical – the launch of the 2019 BBC Proms. And yet…

In its 125th season, the Proms is, frankly, an astonishment. The world’s largest broadcast music festival, it runs for eight weeks from July 19 featuring more than 90 consecutive concerts, sometimes two a day, with lunchtime and late-night events in addition to the evening concerts. Thanks to our licence fee, we and the rest of the world get to hear every single note of the music-making, since the festival in its entirety is broadcast via Radio 3 with later listening via BBC Sounds, not to mention 25 of the juiciest ones being televised.

Anyone imagining a parade of work by dead white men should take a closer look. Yes, there’s Bach, Beethoven and Brahms but there are also commissions from composers such as Sally Beamish, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Zosha Di Castri, Judith Weir, Hans Zimmer and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. A sci-fi film music night features scores including Steven Price’s Gravity and Mica Levi’s Under the Skin, plus everything from Afropop and East Coast hip-hop to beatbox and Duke Ellington.

It’s not just the dizzying array of music [2], it’s also the calibre of musicians. The world’s leading conductors, orchestras and soloists play here, not least Scots mezzo Catriona Morison, double winner at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2017, and legendary piano firebrand Martha Argerich will be 78 when she hurls herself at Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto. I use the word ‘hurl’ because if you’ve ever been lucky enough to see her in the flesh you’ll know that sedate performance is not in her repertoire.

Argerich’s dazzlingly mercurial playing is, in the very best sense, theatrical. Watching her listen to and respond to the rest of the orchestra is as compelling as the sounds she coaxes from the keyboard. Her visible animation and dedication glues audiences to her every musical thought and expression and it’s the audiences that make these concerts unique. Listening or watching at home is terrific but being there is seismically better, partly because the sheer scale of the Royal Albert Hall’s gigantic circular auditorium adds theatrical resonance. Nor does it cost the earth to be there.

‘The Proms are astonishingly democratic since the audience who get the best sound and vision are paying the least – 1,350 tickets every night cost just £6’

Flying in the face of the irritatingly widespread misconception that classical music is elitist, the Proms are astonishingly democratic since the audience who get the best sound and vision are paying the least – 1,350 tickets every night cost just £6. Bag one of those and you could be standing in the front row [3].

As with being among a theatre audience, being part of a collective response in a throng of people concentrating on the work being made live in front of you is a wholly different experience. I am fortunate enough to get press seats but there are particular concerts every year where I queue to stand to be up close and personal with the artists.

Players, too, appreciate this rare connection with audiences standing beside them who are there because they want to be, not because they’re on expense account freebies. Surprised delight at the interaction between musicians and audience spread across the faces of the players of the Oslo Philharmonic when they made their Proms debut a few years ago.

By contrast, and I say this as an atheist, the last couple of years have offered a musical experience bordering on the religious. Being part of the hushed crowd witnessing András Schiff alone on stage with just his Steinway, quietly and unostentatiously playing Bach’s keyboard masterpiece The Well-Tempered Clavier for more than two hours from memory remains unforgettable. The Proms prove you don’t have to be in a theatre to discover true drama.

The Archive: How the Proms evolved beyond classical music [4]

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict [5]