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Purists might baulk, but Sam Smith headlining BBC Proms opens a pathway to classical music

This year's Proms celebrate Nick Drake, Florence & The Machine and disco – for many, it might be a way in

Sam Smith arrives for the 2023 BRIT Awards ceremony at The O2 arena in London. Image: Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Sam Smith arrives for the 2023 BRIT Awards ceremony at The O2 arena in London. Image: Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Sam Smith, Florence & the Machine, a celebration of Nick Drake – is this the line-up for Glastonbury, or Latitude, perhaps? No, these are among the headline – or headline-grabbing – performances at this year’s newly unveiled Proms

For although the ‘orchestral celebration’ of pastoral singer-songwriter Drake features the BBC Symphony Orchestra – and Florence & The Machine’s 2009 debut album Lungs is reimagined as Symphony of Lungs – it doesn’t take a pedant to point out that, even stretching the rules of genre, this is not classical music. And that wouldn’t matter a jot, except that the Proms is the self-styled ‘world’s biggest classical music festival’. 

This year, among other star musicians, it will host the Berlin Philharmonic, performing with Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson and conductor Kirill Petrenko, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle – Mahler and the Machine, if you like. 

One major argument against opening up the Proms like this is that the invitation is not reciprocated. Florence Welch has performed at Glastonbury; the BBC Symphony Orchestra is yet to have had a solo gig there. That’s because, unlike other types of music, classical has, to quote a colleague in The Critic’s spring music special edition, “an image problem that feels like an existential threat”. 

Some time ago, I was exchanging pleasantries with a friendly hairdresser. When I revealed I wrote about classical music, her response was one of horror: “Maybe you’ll be able to move on to other stuff eventually,” she sympathised. I didn’t like to point out that I had, in fact, started my career reviewing indie rock (and writing about forklift trucks), desperate to move into the area of music I had long studied.

That’s the problem – if there is a problem – with classical music: sometimes it does require a bit of effort. And, while some listeners go directly to Beethoven, others need a pathway.

One initial step is to get excited about seeing and hearing orchestral instruments being played; something that those already immersed in classical music often take for granted. 

In that sense, the instrumental versions of well-known music can be a useful step. 

It’s not a new idea: over the years there have been proms honouring Nina Simone, Quincy Jones and an Ibiza event featuring acoustic performances of electronic music. This year sees the first-ever disco prom, celebrating many of the dance-floor fillers of the late 1970s during the era of New York’s Studio 54 (Prom 2 on 20 July). 

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Happily, there’s unconventional within the conventional programme too. Ferruccio Busoni’s 1904 Piano Concerto is among the most complex and expansive works of its kind, requiring phenomenal pianistic
technique and athletic stamina, as the soloist is pitted against full orchestra and chorus for nearly an hour and a half.

Few pianists are willing to embark on such a challenge (one artist once revealed to me that there was blood all over the keyboard after one performance) but British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is more than up to the task (with Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Prom 23, 5 August). 

This is one of two major piano events this summer. Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano was an inspiration for Busoni’s own masterpiece; it’s an epic work that similarly demands pianistic calisthenics. Like the Busoni, it takes an unusually talented musician to perform it – step forward Paul Wee, who will perform the hour-long work at Wigmore Hall (15 June).

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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