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What I've learnt from my debut as BBC Proms Director

David Pickard

Director, BBC Proms

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David Pickard, Director, BBC Proms

1. Anything can happen — and probably will

Not everything goes according to plan, and it isn’t just singers who get sick. In week six one of my colleagues foolishly pointed out that we hadn’t yet had a cancellation. By 11am the next morning we were frantically trying to find a replacement cellist for the concert that night. If his flight from Berlin had been 30 minutes late, Alexey Stadler would not have arrived in time to rehearse the Shostakovich concerto and the audience would have heard Elgar’s In the South instead. However, a prompt arrival and a fast taxi from Heathrow allowed Alexey the triumph he deserved.

Other surprise moments this year included the audience clapping every player off the stage after the last ever performance by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra; being told by Michael Caine that he was once in a film called The Italian Job (er . . . really?); Ed Gardner conducting the first half of his BBC Symphony Orchestra Prom wearing two left shoes (ouch); and finding myself colouring in the CBeebies Prom programme (I must have been overtired).

2. Don’t leave the Prom before the last note has been played

Some of the most memorable moments this summer have been the ones that weren’t advertised. When Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich asked whether we could find a copy of Schubert’s Rondo in A major for piano duet some of us were prepared to write it out if necessary. It was just one of a number of unforgettable encores.

Others included an impromptu klezmer moment by Ákos Ács after the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, an improvisation by Gabriela Montero that moved from JS Bach to Scott Joplin and finished with Mrs Mills, and a whole bunch of instrumentalists proving that they could play and sing at the same time: Sol Gabetta, Narek Hakhnazaryan and Pekka Kuusisto.

3. Don’t be afraid to steal good ideas — and give a wide berth to others

Planning the Proms is not a one-man job. Conductors, artists, orchestras and composers bring their thoughts to the table, and some of the best ideas come from other people. The conductor Jules Buckley’s inspired suggestion that we could make a fantastic Prom out of the career of the producer Quincy Jones produced one of the highlights of the summer. But also be prepared for some pretty outlandish suggestions from well-intentioned members of the public. I’m still not convinced that the Crimewatch Prom would work.

4. Remember that the Albert Hall is circular

When trying to find your way from the maestro’s dressing room to the weekly planning meeting, with the Albert Hall it’s easy to find yourself in the loading bay by mistake. Even if you get lost, just keep going round. You’ll get there in the end.

5. Learn to bluff your way through the technical jargon

I thought a “spiked stage” was an act of revenge on a badly behaved orchestra and that AutoROT was an infestation you found in the loft and couldn’t get rid of. However, it turns out that both are crucial to the smooth running of the Proms — the former means marking the stage for equipment and the latter is a way of getting shows to other parts of the BBC. Working for a broadcasting organisation brings a whole new set of acronyms to learn. You need to look as though you understand what everyone is talking about, even if you are mystified.

6. Respect the Prommers

I swear that some of the prommers are the same people I stood next to at my first visit in 1976. I think their backs must have stood up better than mine. It’s also important to respect Proms traditions, from the “heave ho” every time a piano lid is opened on stage to the huge round of applause when the leader of the orchestra tentatively picks out an A for the orchestra to tune.

I am told there are still rumblings about the fountain being removed from the middle of the arena, but promming moves with the times. The fountain was installed to cleanse pollution by the smoking audience. This year’s innovation is contactless payment. Personally, I don’t see what was wrong with cash.

7. Anything goes at the Last Night

There are strong opinions about what should and should not be included in the Last Night, but it’s important to remember that it is, essentially, a party and a chance for everyone to let their hair down after eight weeks of extraordinary music-making.

It’s also an opportunity to dress up — and I don’t just mean the soloists and conductor. Union Jack shorts are two a penny, as are jaunty sailors’ hats, pearly kings and queens outfits and Ginger Spice-style frocks. I’ll be resisting the impulse to raid the fancy dress box, but from what I’ve heard the tenor Juan Diego Flórez may have something pretty outlandish up his sleeve.

David Pickard is the Director, BBC Proms

This article was first published on The Times website on Friday 9 September

  • The Last Night of the Proms will be live on BBC Radio 3, BBC Two and BBC One on Saturday 10 September 2016

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