As a rule, we Scots have generally held a tainted view of the BBC Proms. It’s a disdain centred on the televised image of the traditional Last Night at the Royal Albert Hall - an occasion drenched in English public school jingoism, lots of Tim Nice-but-Dims in Union Jack waistcoats waving their flags and tooting their hooters, and a jolly good chorus of Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem. For decades, each September, it has invaded our Saturday-night viewing on prime-time TV.
Age-old tradition apart, that is, of course, a skewed impression of what the BBC Proms is all about - one stemming from previous years of increasingly selective broadcasting of the entire Proms season on terrestrial TV. The fact that the world’s biggest music festival - eight weeks of daily concerts from such leading international orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic, Dresden Staatskapelle and Czech Philharmonic - has always been available on a nightly basis on the BBC’s specialist classical music channel, Radio 3, has not necessarily aided its wider dissemination. Until recently, Radio 3 - now considerably spruced up and improved - was not a fashionable outlet, in the way Classic FM has become. So for anyone outwith the London catchment area, the real meat and veg of the Proms was to a great extent a closely guarded secret.
Not any more. Proms director Nicholas Kenyon stressed in last week’s launch of the 110th season, which begins mid-July, that accessibility on a global basis has never been so widespread.
It’s even possible, these days, to tune in via your laptop and mobile phone while rowing on a Canadian lake. That’s not an arbitrary "for instance", by the way. Kenyon actually received an e-mail from someone who had done exactly that. "Not for nothing is our motto ‘wider still yet wider’," he says, a line taken directly from Elgar’s perennial last night anthem.
Digital and web technology has not only revolutionised universal awareness of the Proms, it has become an invaluable PR tool for the BBC. If the two-month event was ever in danger of being an expensive and cumbersome weight around the corporation’s neck, the Proms are now, without doubt, its greatest cultural showcase.
The welcome news for provincial Britons like us, however, is that a huge chunk of the Proms is now available in the comfort of our living rooms, not just as an arm’s length broadcast, but complete with the same trimmings you’d expect if you were one of the sweltering 5,000 souls expected to fill the Albert Hall for each of this year’s 70-plus concerts.
"We’ve always aired them on radio," Kenyon explains. "But this year there’s much more on TV. With more than half the UK now tuning in to the digital channels, radio and television coverage is greater than ever." Almost half the entire season will be televised, spread over BBC One, BBC Two and BBC4, with the majority on BBC4. Added to this digital viewers and listeners can access the concert programme notes by pressing the red button. All concerts will also be streamed live via the Proms website. Which means that digital Scottish audiences can feel a part of the Scottish input to this year’s programme - three concerts by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and one featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with its outgoing principal conductor Joseph Swensen.
Kenyon insists the BBC SSO is central to his planning process for the Proms. "The revolution it has been through with Osmo Vnsk, and now under the bright new leadership of Ilan Volkov, singles it out as a major force to be reckoned with." Volkov, still in his twenties and establishing a dynamic presence in Scotland as the orchestra’s youngest ever principal conductor, made a huge impression with his Proms appearances last year.
Partly as a result of that, the word is that he is hotly tipped to pick up the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious Young Artist award in this Wednesday’s RPS Award ceremony in London. He will make two Proms appearances this year, conducting Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and Janacek’s little-known cantata The Eternal Gospel. The SSO’s associate principal conductor, Martyn Brabbins, also conducts a programme with the orchestra, featuring Anthony Payne’s contentious reconstruction of Elgar’s incomplete Third Symphony.
Janacek and Elgar are prominent throughout the entire Proms programme, reflecting the thematic tapestry of anniversaries that help hold the season together. Various other major anniversaries or birthdays included are those of Holst, Delius, Dvorak, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir John Tavener, Engelbert Humperdinck (the one-hit wonder - his opera Hansel and Gretel - of the sub-Wagner camp), Johann Strauss and Marc Antoine Charpentier (best known as composer of the music adopted as signature tune to the Eurovision Song Contest).
There are also tributes to the extravagant Heinrich Biber (the polychoral Missa Bruxellensis) who died 300 years ago, the thoroughly eccentric American insurance agent and radical 20th-century composer Charles Ives, and Luigi Dallapiccola, the first Italian to embrace Schoenberg’s 12-note method of composition.
"There is such a huge repertoire to choose from that having these anniversaries is a way to focus our planning and help the audience follow the concerts through," says Kenyon.
Planning it all is a hugely complex exercise. "In the past, the process began with one man’s blank sheet," he adds. "Now the process is much more of a collaboration between me, the orchestras, agents and other organisations. There’s a continual to-ing and fro-ing as we pull together the offers and ideas from various people. It’s like putting together a 3-D jigsaw puzzle."
The pieces don’t always fit, though. This year, Kenyon had a problem with the Cleveland Orchestra, whose musicians refused to give permission to have their concert broadcast on the internet. "We pulled them," says Kenyon.
That won’t even create a dent in a line-up of world-class artists and music that begins with Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Holst’s The Planets, and continues with such mountains of the repertoire as Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, and appearances by superstars such as Yo Yo Ma (with his Chinese Silk Road Orchestra), Alfred Brendel, Sir Bernard Haitink, and Sir Simon Rattle.
Wagner fans will be salivating at the thought of Rattle conducting Wagner’s Das Rheingold, a concert performance of Wagner’s opera that marks the start of a four-year Proms Ring Cycle. He appears with the Academy of Ancient Music in what is an extraordinary and revolutionary step - Wagner on period instruments. Willard White sings Wotan, but only for Das Rheingold. A completely new orchestra, cast and conductor will tackle each successive opera as the cycle unfolds.
Among more than 20 premieres this year are seven new BBC commissions, including major new works by John Casken, Zhou Long (part of this year’s East-West theme), Harrison Birtwistle (settings of three of Alfred Brendel’s poems), Judith Bingham and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Joby Talbot changes course from his better known work with The Divine Comedy and television theme tunes such as The League of Gentlemen, with a major new orchestral work.
Another recurring theme will be the famous Albert Hall organ. After a whopping great 7.5 million rebuild, Britain’s biggest organ - 9,999 pipes and 147 stops - will be played by the biggest names in the business, from Dame Gillian Weir to Messiaen’s successor in Paris, Naji Hakim.
Good news, too, for those who prefer the banner-waving sentimentality of the last night translated into something more palatable. Proms in the Park goes regional again, with a repeat of last year’s outdoor concert at Glasgow’s Pacific Quay, featuring the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and National Boys Choir of Scotland.