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‘The BBC has made missteps when it comes to classical musi…

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It might be a drizzly August morning but when Katie Derham bounces through the door of BBC’s Broadcasting House, with her multicoloured tote flung over her shoulder like a beach bag, the unseasonal grey seems inconsequential. 

It’s a busy day in an even busier week for the radio and television presenter. “This is the final push,” the 53-year-old tells me, as we sit down to chat two weeks before the Proms come to an end – she has spent the past two months helming the coverage of the BBC’s classical bonanza, as she has done every summer for the past 13 years. “Eight weeks is a long time and yet the last fortnight is full of such gems. You think, my god, still? Still the greats keep coming?” 

Derham may be one of the BBC’s leading presenters in classical music broadcasting but don’t let that fool you into thinking she’s lost any of her punter’s enthusiasm. With her quicksilver chatter, and her buzzing energy, one continually feels they need to keep up.

“Simon Rattle’s performance [the conductor’s final UK performance as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra] was just…” the BBC Radio 3 presenter trails off. Thump, thump, thump. She beats her chest with adoration.

As for Finnish violinist and conductor Pekka Kuusisto doing The Four Seasons interspersed with folk music improvisations? “That was amazing! It was kind of like the Royal Albert Hall had turned into a massive lock in,” she laughs.

When it comes to the spirit and ethos of London’s most beloved 128-year-old music festival, little has changed since Derham first became the face of it. “It feels slightly odd to reflect that I’ve been doing it for so long,” she muses, “but in the history of the Proms it’s been a mere heartbeat really.” At its core, “it’s an exposure to great Symphonic music which might, for a lot of people, be their first entry point, you know? It’s the gateway drug,” she laughs – “that’s what we’re all in it for.” 

As The Last Night approaches, I’m drawn to something Derham said when it was announced that she was joining Classic FM in 2002, which she left for BBC Radio 3 in 2010 – that “it’s OK to like Debussy as well as Dido.”

Prom 57: Fantasy, Myths and Legends BBC Proms 2023 Live at the BBC Proms: the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Anna-Maria Helsing with music from film, video games and classical orchestral music. Provided by jo.hawkins@bbc.co.uk
Katie Derham with co-host Ali Plumb during Prom 57: Fantasy, Myths and Legends (Photo: Andy Paradise T/AS Paradise Photo)

An early-Noughties pop reference that might be a bit dated now, we joke, and yet, “that’s the way I was brought up, you know? The world is full of music and it’s really varied. You might love a bit of Stormzy but also think Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is actually a bit of a banger.” Her daughters – with the restauranteur John Vincent, with whom she lives in Sussex – are now 23 and 18 and Derham finds it hilarious to hear them regularly refer to classical music greats as “bangers”, she laughs. “But they are!”

While the Proms may not have changed since Derham started working on them, broadcasting has. Last year it was announced that the BBC was preparing for “a world of infinite choice” and a time when broadcast radio would be “switched off” in favour of online-only listening.

“I don’t think we can fight the tide of the fact that we are consuming media in an entirely different way. I don’t think you have to be a Gen Z digital native to see that and the BBC has to reflect that,” she says when I ask about this. “All of us are working in a very different media landscape. Like them or loathe them, most of us use streaming services. Is there always going to be a place for live music? Absolutely. Will there still be live events for sport and news? Of course.” 

In the years that have seen Derham head up the Proms, and even reach the final of Strictly Come Dancing in 2015, perhaps it’s been easy to forget that when she joined ITV in 1998, at the age of 27, she became the youngest newscaster on British national television.

“I come from a news background and I can’t see that there has ever been a greater need for a strong and independent news service. We need to fight to keep that,” she says with passion.

In a speech at the Barbican earlier this year, Simon Rattle declared that UK classical music was fighting for its life after “deeply alarming” cuts by Arts Council England and the BBC were announced.

Television programme: Strictly Come Dancing 2015 - TX: 12/12/2015 - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: **DRESS REHEARSAL** EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 20:30 HRS ON SATURDAY 12TH DECEMBER 2015 Katie Derham, Anton Du Beke - (C) BBC - Photographer: Guy Levy
Derham reached the final of Strictly Come Dancing in 2015 with partner Anton Du Beke (Photo: BBC/Guy Levy)

The BBC has since changed course on its proposed cuts to BBC English orchestras and BBC Singers after pressure from musicians and the public. “This is a nuanced debate,” Derham says carefully. “There have been some missteps – and they have been acknowledged.”

One of the things that really gets her mad, she says, is the undervaluing of music in our schools. “How many reports do we need to see until someone says music and the arts are fundamentally important to the human condition?” she asks. “I just don’t understand why it is not valued more. Until it’s embedded in schools, and acknowledged as such, we’re going to continue to have these arguments about what happens later down the line.

“I think we’re in a state of great change and we are all finding our way,” she continues. She likens it to two steps forward, half a step back. The younger generation do get a lot of their news from TikTok and that slightly terrifies her, she admits, “but then you’ve got to say, well okay, how do we work with that?” 

Airing the day after Last Night of the Proms is a BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature that is very close to Derham’s heart. The segment, titled Brazilian Modernist Godfather, tells the tale of a group of artists in São Paulo, including the rule breaking composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, and the revolutionary poet Oswald de Andrade, whose “cannibal manifesto” or Mainfesto Antropófago, which set out to liberate Brazil from colonial history and European ideals, was published in 1928. It advocated for Brazilians to be bold, asserting that artists should consume European influences before those influences consumed them.

“It’s not a mainstream subject,” Derham readily admits. “But Brazil, like many countries in the 1920s, was going through a post-war soul-searching quest.” She likens the group to the Bloomsbury set in their liberal bohemianism, “trying to create this new language, if you like.” We all wish we’d known people who came before, to discover what they were really like, she adds. For Derham, this desire goes deeper, extending to her great-grandmother, Frederika, “who was having an affair with one of them, and did so for decades and decades.”

Her great-grandmother was Dutch but emigrated to Rio de Janeiro with her husband – Derham’s great-grandfather – at the turn of the century. “I don’t know much about it, but what I do know is that at some point, on a crossing back from Holland, she met Manuel Bandeira.” Brazil’s great poet soon became her great-grandmother’s lover and constant companion. She even helped him with his translations.

“Her marriage clearly broke down but they didn’t divorce,” she explains. “My great-grandfather bought a farm further down the coast, and she had what must have been a very bohemian life.” Bandeira would come for lunch, every day, and they would disappear upstairs soon after. “In the course of researching this documentary I discovered that he [Bandeira] went somewhere else every evening,” she chuckles. “He doesn’t look like a player in his photographs. Clearly it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch.”

It’s the most personal show Derham has presented to date, as she delves into family folklore in order to piece together a more intimate history. With her mix of passion and intellect, the parallels with her great-grandmother may seem more distant than they actually are. Derham never met Frederika, but she wonders whether her quest to find out more about her artistic life has something to do with her own.

“Maybe that’s why I’ve ended up where I am,” she muses. “When you look at black and white family photos they tend to look different from us. But then you hear the stories and you realise how crazy, wild and free their lives possibly were.” She smiles. “And you realise how much you don’t know.”

Andrade’s Mainfesto Antropófago was new to Derham, and an exciting discovery. “It’s a great way of thinking about how we all consume art,” she reflects. 

And relevant in 2023, I suggest. Is Andrade’s plea for creative daring even more vital now? “I think we live in a world where we’re being asked not to be so open minded,” she says. “A hundred years ago, they were celebrating how you can be influenced by everything around you, and nothing is off limits.” 

Katie Derham hosts Last Night of the Proms from 7pm on BBC Two on Saturday, continuing at 9pm on BBC One. Brazilian Modernist Godfather is on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday at 6.45pm

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