This week the Parry Society was immensely fortunate to host Mr David Pickard, the current Director of the BBC Proms. Mr Pickard began his career in the administrative side of the music industry aged 17, when he became the ‘stationary-courier’ for the Royal Opera House. After studying Music at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Mr Pickard returned to the ROH as Company Manager of the Royal Opera Company, and after several high-ranking music-management roles, including that of General Director of Glyndebourne from 2001 – 2015, he became the Director of the BBC Proms.
As Director, Mr Pickard has aimed to bring the Proms to the younger generations. A new series of concerts have sprung up, running in tandem with the Proms, and taking place in venues as diverse as the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe and the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in Peckham. Despite his own best efforts, Mr Pickard said that he is deeply concerned about a ‘crisis’ amongst young people today regarding their musical education, and indeed that of the Humanities, which he worried is being side-lined by the government in favour of the Sciences.
Mr Pickard provided a fascinating insight into what happens behind-the-scenes at the Proms. One anecdote that was particularly moving was about the first night of the Proms in 2016. Eighty-six people had been murdered on the previous night in the Nice truck attack. Mr Pickard, having received the terrible news, phoned Sir Sakari Oramo, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who was conducting that evening, and the pair decided to include a performance of La Marseillaise in the concert. The addition to the programme was withheld from the audience until the orchestra began to play. When the orchestra started La Marseillaise, the whole audience fell silent, and all stood up in a mark of solidarity with the people of France. Mr Pickard also recalled the reaction to the controversy surrounding Rule Britannia! and the Last Night of the Proms in 2020. Amusingly, Mr Pickard said that the front-page media attention was welcome, on the grounds that ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’!
Despite the pandemic, the 2020 Proms season meant the empty Royal Albert Hall had allowed for more novel performances, including spreading out choirs and orchestras to create different sounds. However, Mr Pickard greatly sympathised with the freelance musicians whose opportunity to perform and earn money had been severely curtailed.
Looking to the 2021 Proms season, Mr Pickard said that there had been a constant struggle for the programming team to judge whether they were being too ‘gung-ho’ or too cautious, especially given that they were scheduling the concerts in February with little knowledge of the restrictions in August. Despite the lifting of restrictions, Mr Pickard explained that precautions are still in place: for the Hallé’s performance of Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No.3 ‘Organ’, the two pianists who are playing in a duet will have to isolate together for two weeks before the concert. Although Mr Pickard humorously said that his ‘favourite Prom’ was always the one that wasn’t selling, he was most looking forward to the much anticipated To Soothe the Aching Heart concert on the 16th August. This Prom will combine many arias from different operas which have a theme of separation.