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BBC picks date for Proms

Advances in technology brings event to more auds

LONDON — Not only a flagship British cultural event, the annual worldwide broadcast of the Last Night of the BBC Proms is one of the world’s most accessible classical music performances. Announcing the 2006 season, which begins July 14, director Nicholas Kenyon argued last week that advances in technology mean that this promises to be the most accessible yet.

In an industry routinely regarded as drinking in the last-chance saloon, Kenyon is in the luxurious position of heading an ever-expanding festival of seriously high-end classical music. The Proms, aka the BBC Promenade Concerts, are nightly, informal concerts in the giant, circular Royal Albert Hall attended by up to 6,000 people. For a mere £5 ($9) a ticket, 1,400 of the attendees stand in the best part of the hall both visually and aurally.

The 2005 attendance figures matched those of the previous year despite a shaky start due to the London bombings last July. Attendance reached 257,000 for 74 concerts over 58 days at 86% capacity. Nearly 7,000 people under 16 bought half-price seats to programs including the Vienna Philharmonic playing Berg and Stravinsky.

Beyond the auditorium, every concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and available on-demand over the subsequent seven days, with an average of 10,000 per concert using the service. Such numbers are seriously envied by the world’s orchestras, who line up to play during the season.

“The classical music industry was very slow to pick up on the impact of technological change,” says Kenyon. “Record companies and orchestras got into a great deal of trouble.”

Being in the unique position of being directly funded by the BBC means the series does not have to make tricky deals with a broadcaster. It also places the org way ahead with technology.

This year, the first night concert also will be available for viewing for seven days via the BBC’s fledgling broadband video Web site. Developments like that mean that Kenyon has his sights set firmly on the future. “The enormous possibilities and potential for downloading are currently an open question.”

In addition to 10 concerts screened on terrestrial channels BBC1 and BBC2, digital arts channel BBC4 will broadcast live the final three weeks of the season, wrapping Sept. 7. These include perfs by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach.

In terms of money spent on the amount of broadcast hours, the costs are relatively low thanks to the Proms’ unique funding. Founded in 1895, the BBC has run the concert series since 1927 and now covers almost $7.1 million of the total $13.4 million cost, with the remaining $6.2 million coming from box office. That investment helps bolster the BBC’s public service commitment.

“Of course we could raise box office income by raising ticket prices, but this is about making music as available as possible as cheaply as possible to as many as possible while operating at the highest quality throughout,” offers Kenyon.

So what makes the Proms so successful? “Although methods of delivery are changing hugely, the thirst for great live experience is there more than ever,” he explains. “The people paying the least get the best places in the hall, and the players and the audience are very aware of a community of people enjoying themselves. The Proms is perceived as an event that people want to be part of.”

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