At the opening of the Bristol Proms, a bid to make classical music appeal to a more diverse audience, we were offered three concerts in an evenng.
Around the time of evensong, we had an hour-long recital in an Old Vic studio basement in near-pitch darkness from the Fitzhardinge Consort, a Bristol group spanning the centuries from Gesualdo to Eric Whitacre. The group maintained near-perfect pitch and rhythm despite (maybe due to) not being able to see conductor Tom Williams much of the time.
The main course was the Polish-Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, filmed by multiple cameras and projected onto an overhead screen in digi-imagery as he played two sets of études by Chopin, with intros by Bach and Messiaen. Old Vic director Tom Morris announced in advance that there were no rules for these concerts and the audience should feel to applaud as and when it saw fit. We’ll come to that in a minute.
The late-night and most successful segment featured Hauschka, the German hip-hop turned improv pianist, playing contemplative variations on a Cageian prepared piano with an aleatory backdrop of live images from within the piano. A phlegmatic character with unexpected qualities of showmanship, Hauschka gauged his audience to perfection and found a close rapport with the standees in the pit of the theatre.
All three events were beamed live down the road to a second audience at the Watershed and some will be show this weekend on Channel 4 TV.
Technology apart, the Bristol Old Vic Proms did not feel like much of a revolution. The audience was not conspicuously different from many BBC Proms and the repertoire was pretty much along the old lines. What Lisiecki played is what he had recorded lately for Deutsche Grammophon, whose owner, Universal Music, was co-promoting these Proms.
As for the applause between études, the young pianist did not seem troubled and my concentration, for one, was not disturbed. What it did signify, though, was which pieces the audience responded to more, and which less. That stuck me as a useful barometer, signalling to the performer how he was getting through and allowing him to adjust his angle of approach as he continued. Was I bothered? Not at all. The taboo on silence – more likely coughs and farts – between movements may have outlived its usefulness. If the Bristol Proms encourage a response more in tune with modern lives, an instant indicator of appreciation or indifference, they will find a solid audience. I, for one, will be back.
Drink, though not food or ices, was admitted to the auditorium. Photography, however, was not permitted. Some more taboos may need to fall.
The Proms run all week and appear to be selling well. That said, friends in Bristol who don’t tune in to the broadcast partner Classic FM were unaware of their existence.