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Q&A: Roger Wright, Controller of BBC Radio 3 and Director of the BBC Proms

By | Published on Tuesday 9 July 2013

Roger Wright

Roger Wright’s varied career within the classical music industry has seen him work as Senior Producer of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Vice President of A&R at Deutsche Grammophon, amongst other roles. Since 1998 though, he has been Controller of BBC Radio 3, and a year prior to that became Director of the BBC Proms – both roles he still holds today.

The 2013 edition of the BBC’s annual Proms festival begins this Friday and runs until 7 Sep. Amongst the events on offer will be a performance of music from ‘Doctor Who’ and an “urban classical” show featuring contributions from Laura Mvula, Maverick Sabre and Fazer, as well as more traditional classical performances, including a complete performance of Wagner’s 882 minute piece ‘Ring Cycle’, in honour of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. American conductor Marin Alsop will also become the first woman ever to led The Last Night Of The Proms.

With everything almost ready to go, CMU Editor Andy Malt spoke to Wright about his dual roles and how his work relates to the wider classical music industry.

AM: You’ve worked in various roles in the classical music industry. What first attracted you to working in this field?
RW: I have been very fortunate to have had such a variety of roles, not least internationally. My passion for classical music first drove me to work in this business – it’s a joy to spend as much time as possible with this remarkable art form – I feel very privileged.

AM: You’ve now been Controller of Radio 3 for fifteen years and overseen the BBC Proms slightly longer. What’s an average day like for you?
RW: One of the joys of my job is that there is no average day. It starts early in the BBC Radio 3 breakfast studio, and then it’s time to deal with the daily issues of running a 24/7 radio station and the world’s largest music festival! I can only run these things with the help of all my fantastic colleagues. Every day is different and time has flown by. The context in which we work also changes all the time and there are always new works to hear and new ideas to explore.

AM: When do you begin planning the Proms each year, and what’s the overall aim of the event?
RW: There is a rolling planning cycle and each Proms season starts to be planned three years ahead, so I live in a time warp where I might be dealing with urgent matters for this year’s event and urgent issues for the 2016 festival at the same time! The classical music world is organised a long time in advance and the summer is busy for high profile artists with other festivals, performances and well-earned and long planned breaks.

The aim of the event hasn’t really changed since Henry Wood founded the Proms back in 1895 – to bring the best possible classical music to the largest audience. The BBC took over the event in 1927 and since then the broadcasting world has changed dramatically, and so our ability to reach new audiences globally has reached a level which was unimaginable for the founders of the Proms.

AM: This year you’re marking the 200th anniversary of Wagner and Verdi’s birth and 100 years of Benjamin Britten, with a series of performances of their work coming up at the Proms and on Radio 3. When focussing on a single composer like this, how do you choose which of their work to focus on?
RW: All of our planning develops organically as ideas and proposals come in and we see opportunities to build musical threads through the festival. We don’t always reflect anniversaries, but there are some where the expectation level is too high to ignore.

We happen to be blessed with a fine crop of Wagner singers and conductors at the moment and so it felt right to feature his work this year. Britten has played an important part in the Proms and so it was a natural fit for us to set his work in the context of other British music of his time.

It does help to plan BBC Radio 3 and the BBC Proms together, because our listeners will get to hear all the operas by those three anniversary composers in 2013 on Radio 3. Where else can you do that?

AM: How important are events like the Doctor Who Prom and the Urban Classic Prom to the overall event? Do these shows bring in a different audience, and, if so, how likely are they to engage with the more ‘traditional’ events?
RW: These events are very important in our mission to build new audiences for classical music. There was no doubt that we had found a new audience, for our festival and classical music in general, when I looked out at the Comedy Prom hosted by Tim Minchin in 2011 and saw the amount of Minchin-esque eyeliner being worn by the Promming queue! These audiences then connect with the event, hear orchestras and choirs for the first time and hopefully catch the Proms bug and want to investigate more.

AM: This will be the first year ever that the Proms has had a woman conducting The Last Night Of The Proms. Why has it taken so long? Does this reflect a gender imbalance in classical music as a whole?
RW: I’m thrilled that Marin Alsop accepted our invitation to conduct the Last Night. If that moves the agenda on elsewhere that would be a great outcome.

AM: How has the Proms changed in the time you’ve overseen it? And where do you see the event going in the future?
RW: The audiences have grown through our broadcasts – in each of the last two years the BBC TV audience in the UK alone has been around fifteen million – and the range of music we have been able to present has expanded.

It is thrilling to see the openness and curiosity of the BBC Proms’ audiences and their eagerness to discover the unfamiliar and enjoy what the Proms offers. It is a sign of the health and strength of the Proms brand that it can attract such big audiences for what we offer.

I am sure that the core vision for the Proms will remain the same but who knows where technology will be in ten years’ time and what opportunities this will offer for the event to reach new audiences?

AM: Radio 3 commissions a great deal of new classical music. How do you go about finding new composers? Is it possible for people to approach the BBC with ideas?
RW: Radio 3 is the most significant commissioner of new music in the world and ideas come to us all the time from a variety of sources. Often it starts with our performers, who want to have a new work from a particular composer. It is exciting to work with so many knowledgeable colleagues in BBC Radio 3, the BBC orchestras and the BBC Singers, who play a key part in the creative decision making about new work. Ideas can be sent it to each of the BBC’s performing groups and to the Proms.

AM: What’s the typical process once Radio 3 has commissioned a new piece? How long does it take to bring it to broadcast, and does the BBC have much or any creative input along the way?
RW: We commission, the composer writes, we rehearse and perform it and broadcast it. Simple! But behind that simplified scenario lies all the planning. We will usually commission to a deadline which might be short – six months for a last minute quick idea – or longer, say three years for a big orchestral piece for the BBC Proms. The composers will often want to work with the performers through the process and often we will have had discussions about the nature of the piece before it is formally commissioned.

AM: Are there any composers you’re particularly proud of being discovered by Radio 3?
RW: It would be impossible to single out particular composers from the hundreds we have supported over the years. It’s not only those we have commissioned but those for whom BBC Radio 3 was their only regular outlet for their music. There is the ever present danger of the creeping terror of playlists which narrow rather than stimulate interest. Radio 3 doesn’t use a playlist and a successful programme like ‘Late Junction’ is the antidote to relaxing with the familiar. It’s an attractive and friendly way to discover lots of music. I think Radiohead had their first airplay on national radio on Radio 3. That sort of support doesn’t appear from playing safe and only delivering to audiences what they already know.

AM: And finally, what are you most looking forward to seeing at the Proms this year?
RW: I am always keen to get going with the festival and so I am looking forward to the First Night and Sakari Oramo’s first concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony orchestra which is the resident ensemble of the Proms. It promises to be a special evening. And then there are the Dr Who Proms, Wagner’s Ring cycle, Urban Classic Prom, the Gospel Prom and everything else. And then I’ll soon be looking forward to the Last Night!