Contemporary classic

The gloom merchants keep predicting the demise of the classical music industry. But, as the 112th Pr

Classical music has been through seismic changes in recent times, with many questioning whether the classical recording industry can survive in the age of downloads and the internet. However, the good news is that live music and major events are flourishing more than ever.

The ways of delivering music to listeners have been transformed, and this has created some casualties. The areas of the music industry that did not anticipate how the rise of the internet would affect global rights have been caught on the hop by technological developments. But the gloom merchants who wrote, on the appearance of EMI's much-lauded Tristan und Isolde with Plácido Domingo last year, that they would eat their hats if another complete opera ever appeared on CD have been forced to do just that. Last month, for example, an obscure Vivaldi opera, never before recorded, turned up in two new complete recordings.

What the public is telling us is that it wants to experience great music in fresh ways, and gain access to it by the most convenient means. This was the message of the stunning success of Radio 3's free downloads of the Beethoven symphonies last year, an offer taken up about 1.4 million times worldwide. There is a huge appetite for more of this sort of material to be delivered in the easiest and most innovative ways possible. The Radio 3 initiative showed just what power broadcasting continues to have in leading the way towards novel methods of consumption. With the launch on 10 April of the Warner Classics commercial classical music downloading site, and the continued existence of sites run by companies such as Chandos and Naxos, this brave (and remarkably cheap) new world is slowly but surely becoming a reality.

The real problem for classical music is that no one expects it to change, because it is steeped in tradition and is too often associated exclusively with the past. Yet it changes continually, both in character and in content. New music, so often thought of as esoteric and unappealing, has never been more varied in style and substance than now.

At the BBC Proms, the repertory that the audience responds to and most enjoys alters in ways that can be surprising. It will astonish no one that Mozart will be prominent this summer in his 250th anniversary year, but who would have predicted a couple of decades ago that Shostakovich, whose centenary it is this year, would turn out to be one of the most communicative and indispensable of 20th-century composers?

The big Shostakovich symphonies will feature strongly in our programme this year. They speak with huge power to the present generation, drawing audiences as did, say, Tchaikovsky a generation ago. Shostakovich's work, born of a period of immense political repression and acute personal struggle, seems to sum up the 20th century far more potently than the intellectual constructions of the modernists who at one moment seemed poised to carry our musical traditions forward.

Brahms and Beethoven are still staples of the Proms diet, for their mixture of emotional appeal and structural coherence speaks across time. Currently, however, composers with bigger, more expansive Romantic structures are emerging into the limelight. Both Bruckner, who played the organ at the Royal Albert Hall, and Mahler, whose intensely emotional response to the pressures of the times has been one of the great discoveries of our generation, are popular with contemporary audiences.

Because of the existence of recording and broadcasting, the Proms repertory has grown in ways that could never have been imagined a century ago. When Henry Wood first conducted the concerts back in 1895 at the Queen's Hall in Langham Place (next to where Broadcasting House now stands) he aimed to bring the excitement of orchestral music to a public weaned on worthy choral work and uplifting oratorio. He drew in the very latest novelties by Richard Strauss and Dvorak, both of whom were still alive, and Tchaikovsky, who had died only two years earlier. Wood then became bolder, introducing Debussy, Sibelius and Schoenberg. "Stick to it!" he exhorted his players as they struggled with Schoenberg's brand-new Five Orchestral Pieces in 1912. "This is nothing like what you will have to play in 25 years' time!"

Since then, there has been a century and more of new music. It has taken us all the way to the dizzying stylistic diversity of Harrison Birtwistle, John Tavener, Arvo Pärt and Elliott Carter. There has also been a huge revival of early music, which has transformed our understanding of the music of the past. So, today at the Proms, we face an enjoyably daunting challenge in trying to represent the best of this repertory in performances of the highest distinction. However, a summer season can inevitably only show the tip of the musical iceberg.

The past decade of the Proms has coincided with extraordinary technological and musical changes. On the largest scale, big screens have made possible the explosion of Proms in the Park around the country, all linked by television and radio into a communal celebration of music-making. On the smallest, daunted by the size of the Albert Hall for some material, we introduced a Proms chamber-music season. This has grown, and last year it moved to the splendidly renovated Cadogan Hall near Sloane Square, which has quickly become part of the Proms family.

It would be too easy for an institution such as the Proms to rest on its laurels, content to re-engage the world's greatest orchestras in an annual display of exceptional talent. Of course, that is a vital part of our mission. This year we will promote some of the best ensembles playing the most adventurous music: the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle, the Philadelphia Orchestra with Christoph Eschenbach, the Pittsburgh Symphony with Andrew Davis, and many more.

Yet we also want the festival to move and to reflect some of those changes in the world of classical music. Above all, we want it to be committed to youth and the next generation of talent. Young audiences have always been a feature of the Proms; now we want to encourage young performers, too. Youth orchestras are a regular feature, from this country and from continental Europe, but last year teenagers from around the country were able to come and play alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This year, we have an ambitious vocal project for singers of all ages and skills, who will work with the charismatic Orlando Gough and his group The Shout in a pair of concerts.

There is a realisation now that classical music is not limited by old certainties, nor does it simply appeal to a committed audience that listens to nothing else. Classical music is flourishing because, partly thanks to its availability and familiarity through film, on TV and even as muzak, it reaches a far wider cross-section of the music-listening public. These are audiences that are not composed exclusively of classical music fans. They mix genres and styles in their listening, and may just as likely choose to go to a restaurant or the cinema as decide to go to a concert.

Clearly this is a huge challenge in marketing (as one guru put it: "If no one is coming to your concert, nothing will stop them"). It should be a fiercer spur to the industry to be flexible and approach- able, and to make potential audiences feel that classical music is for them. At the Proms, thanks to the continual support of the BBC, we can keep ticket prices low. We have the unique informality of the promming areas on the arena floor or up in the gallery, where audiences can come in for £5 and stand (or lie down, or whatever they wish) in order to encounter great music. On any level, it's a bargain.

But it is more than a bargain: it's a list-ening situation which, time and again, orchestras and conductors tell us has created one of the best audiences in the world. Prom audiences are open to challenge, not afraid of new and difficult work, informal, concentrated and supremely appreciative. When Henry Wood and his colleagues created that standing space on the floor of the Queen's Hall a century ago, turning the social conventions of classical concert-going on their head, he could scarcely have imagined what an impact it would still have more than a hundred years later.

We no longer smoke in the Proms, and the music doesn't include cornet solos and operatic medleys. But in an astonishing number of ways, the vision of the Proms remains completely in tune with what Wood and his colleagues aimed for. We want to lead the way in showing that classical music is vigorous, energetic and open to change. That is what this coming season, as ever, will be about.

The BBC Proms run at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 from 14 July to 9 September. The Proms Guide is available by calling 0870 241 5490, or from all good booksellers