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Roger Wright: BBC’s man behind the Proms

July 25, 2013

LONDON (AP) — Some people go to the seashore during the summer. Some go to the countryside. Roger Wright goes to Royal Albert Hall.

As the BBC’s man in charge of the Proms, which proudly bills itself as the world’s largest classical music festival, Wright makes repeated trips to the hall on each of 57 consecutive days of concerts.

A typical schedule might include an early-morning logistics consult with members of his 25-person team, then a chat with concertgoers who have lined up overnight for cheap seats. He’s likely to pop over for midday rehearsals, then back again to his box to entertain guests at the evening performance and visit backstage with the performers.

“People say, ‘How do you do it?,’” Wright said in an interview in his office at the BBC Broadcasting House near Portland Place, three miles across London from the hall. “We all work amazingly hard and put in incredible hours, but it’s the sort of thing where work and hobby and passion sort of overlap. So you wouldn’t choose naturally to work 20 hours a day, nor should people, but some of those working hours are also about, my God, getting paid to have the privilege of hearing these wonderful concerts.”

His eyes light up as he talks of the past weekend, when conductors Antonio Pappano, Valery Gergiev and Daniel Barenboim were “all overlapping and mixing backstage. The joy of the National Youth Orchestra of the U.S. (conducted by Gergiev) making its debut appearance and them being able to sit in on the rehearsal of ‘Die Walkuere’ (the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Barenboim) — that’s really special.”

The Royal Albert Hall, an enormous circular domed building in South Kensington facing onto Hyde Park, was built during Queen Victoria’s reign and is named for her late husband. It originally could hold up to 9,000 people, but safety rules now limit the number to about 5,500.

For the Proms that figure includes up to 900 who stand in the “arena” — the main floor from which all seats are removed. In theory, that audience is free to stroll about, or “promenade” —hence the term. Tickets for the arena are sold the day of the concert and go for just £5 (about $7.60).

“That is what the Proms in the end is all about,” Wright said. “There’s something very simple about just taking out a £5 note and paying cash.” Pricier seats can cost up to about $100.

The Proms — a London fixture since 1895 and held at the Royal Albert Hall since 1941 — cost about $14 million to put on. About $6 million of that is recouped in ticket sales, the rest coming out of the BBC’s budget, which in turn is funded from a tax or “licensing fee” on every household with television. The current rate, set by the government, is about $220 annually for homes with a color TV.

One might think that the hall, given its vast dimensions, would be a poor venue for classical music and opera. But the surprising quality of the unamplified acoustics was evident during Tuesday night’s performance of Wagner’s “Walkuere,” part of the first “Ring” cycle ever done in a single season at the Proms.

The orchestral climaxes thundered through the hall, yet the quiet moments stood out as well — the tender cello solo in Act 1, or bass-baritone Bryn Terfel whispering some of his lines as Wotan. Even more astonishing was the deafening roar of the audience erupting in cheers at the end of each act.

Wright recounts how Barenboim told the orchestra of his experience years ago accompanying baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Schubert’s “Die Winterreise.”

“I was concerned as a pianist how it would be,” Wright quoted Barenboim as telling the musicians. “But you know, I learned you don’t have to project to the 27th row. The 27th row can come to us.”

Though the Proms last 57 days, there are actually more than 90 concerts, since many days there are lunchtime and late night events, and a few are held in different venues. Most are classical music, but new this summer are an appearance by a rock group (the Stranglers) and programs devoted entirely to gospel music and urban pop.

Wright plans his schedule three to four years in advance, fielding hundreds of pitches from composers, artists, orchestras, publishers and agents.

“Unfortunately I spend more of my time saying ‘no’ than ‘yes,’” Wright said. “The only thing you can be certain of is that whether it’s a piece for baroque flute or for 100 orchestras and 23 choirs, there will always be a line in their proposal which will say, ‘And this would be perfect for the Proms.’”

Wright, 56, has run the festival since 2008, but it’s not his only job. He’s also controller of Radio 3, the live music and arts station that broadcasts every Proms concert. (Many are televised as well.) And he’s responsible for the five BBC orchestras and full-time professional choir.

This year the gala “Last Night” concert is on Sept. 7. So how does Wright’s life change on Sept. 8? For one thing, he’ll get to reacquaint himself with his wife, Rosie, and their two children.

“I remind my family of my name and my presence,” he said, “and I don’t set the alarm. That’s the most important thing.”

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