Don't wait till the last night

Alexandra Coghlan talks to Roger Wright, director of the Proms

The BBC Proms
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7

“You make changes to the Proms' heritage at your peril," Roger Wright observes, only half-joking. With their 117-year history and cumulative live audience of over 300,000, the Proms are a weighty legacy for Wright, who has been director since 2007. His respect for tradition has shaped his success as much as his innovation, and a sequence of record-breaking seasons has reached ever-larger audiences. "The things that were true about the Proms when they were founded in 1895 are true now," he says. "The context in which people listen might have changed dramatically, but the core principles of presenting the highest-quality music to the largest possible audience, of giving listeners not only what they know but also new and unfamiliar works, have remained consistent."

Among this year's less familiar works is Havergal Brian's Symphony No 1, "The Gothic", which makes its Proms debut on the opening weekend. Demanding around 1,000 performers, it is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as "largest symphony". Programming such a work is a bold, if risky, gesture. "Brian is a composer whom a lot of people might dismiss," Wright tells me, "but when you talk to them, you discover it's all based on second-hand opinion. I think it's important to give audiences the opportunity to experience such pieces directly."

What of those who are intimidated by obscure, 20th-century repertoire? "A lot of people who like the sound of classical music but don't know their way around it find their way in through soundtracks, so the film music Prom might appeal. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and [Valery] Gergiev could also be good for a first-timer."

For many, including Wright as a child, the first encounter with the Proms is its last night. Wright is keen for this national celebration to remain an integrated part of the festival. "It's important that the last night is the last night of something, not just an isolated event. This year, we have works by Bartók, Wagner and Liszt - all reflections of music heard earlier in the season. The twist of having Lang Lang performing over at Proms in the Park as well as in the Royal Albert Hall is a way of recognising the broad church that the Proms have become." l

From 15 July to 10 September

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India