Earlier this evening I took my seat in the chapel of St Peter’s College, Oxford. The large space (formerly a parish church) was bustling with music-loving fellows and students alike. The reason for this gathering was one of classical music’s most powerful figures: Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3. After an introductory question-and-answer session with Mark Damazer (Master of St Peter’s College and former controller of BBC Radio 4), Wright gave some fascinating insights into his career.
Wright skipped through his posts with the Cleveland Orchestra (as artistic administrator) and Deutsche Grammophon (where he became vice-president) which preceded his role at the BBC. Since his appointment to controller of Radio 3 in 1998, Wright has elevated the status of jazz and world music. He became Director of the BBC Proms in 2007.
It was on the Proms that much of the discussion was focused. Wright spoke of how he viewed them as a festival (not a season), with the balance between large-scale and distinctive crucial in lending the Proms their individuality. Even though some programmes would not be expected to draw big audiences (referencing this year’s Vaughan Williams ‘trilogy’ as an example: symphonies 4, 5 and 6 in one evening), the concert-goers are attracted by the bold and sometimes eclectic programming. Wright exemplifies Howell’s Hymnus Paradisi: although he would by no means rank it among the ‘best’ pieces of music, it deserves to be heard. It is this championing of the lesser-known pieces which gives the Proms their identity: they celebrate a vast range of repertoire.
It is not only the programming which keeps the audience coming back for more, but also the intimacy of the Royal Albert Hall. Despite its gargantuan scale (and less-than-perfect acoustics), Wright describes a full house as lending an intensity to the performance, particularly in late-night chamber recitals.
The conversation turns to the anniversaries of composers, and how Wright is careful in his treatment of the anniversaries of composers. Given their divisive nature, he is careful not to correlate events such as April 2012’s ‘The Spirit of Schubert’ with a commemorative year, thus maintaining the careful balance of the Proms. Wright denies the presence of quotas to maintain certain levels of new pieces, for example: he sees this as unrealistic.
Throughout the discussion, Roger Wright revealed himself to be a thoughtful and devoted music lover, revealing that he attends all of the Proms each year (even concerts including Spanish guitar music, the one type of repertoire he dislikes). His desire to give lesser-known pieces their airtime is clearly a formula that works for the listeners. He rejects any suggestion that Radio 3 competes with Classic FM, arguing that both stations are complementary.
When I arrived home this evening, I scanned the Radio 3 timetable once more. Even though I am a regular listener, the talk with Roger Wright has helped me to appreciate just how lucky we are to have such a resource at our fingertips (as the music critic Alex Ross has acknowledged). As I type, I am listening to Ivo Neame and his Octet: just another world-class piece of music which is but a click away.