He isn't infallible about music'
Igor Toronyi meets the quizzical Catholic who masterminds the BBC Proms
Nicholas Kenyon has a tough job. As Director of the Proms he has several competing audiences to please: the thorny classical music faithful, the Classic FM-loving public, those who guard the traditions of the Last Night with their lives and the politically correct BBC.
Running Britain's most famous music festival, therefore, is often a struggle of Mahlerian proportions. This 2007 season is his last, but he is still careful with his words. His manner of dealing with any questions that require a subjective, and therefore potentially tendentious, response is dealt with consummate, almost Blairite, tact.
His usual recourse is to laugh his avuncular head off. It is the reaction you used to get from members of the Labour Cabinet when they were asked if they were Brownites or Blairites. "What a preposterous question" was the implication.
When I ask Kenyon which composers he dislikes, he greets me with a similar short burst of "how preposterous" chuckling. After a good two minutes of polite evasion, he tells me, extremely tentatively, that, at a push, he's "not really a Prokofiev person".
"But there are pieces of Prokofiev that are enormously impressive and enjoyable," he adds speedily.
His caution is necessary. Classical music has a particularly high concentration of rapacious vultures waiting to rip those like Kenyon to shreds.
And when he invited Michael Ball to perform at this year's Proms after critics panned Ball's performance in the English National Opera's Kismet they did just that.
He stands firm over his decision, however.
"They were critical of Michael Ball before he opened in Kismet. And, actually, if you read the reviews of Kismet one of the things that people were most positive about was Michael Ball, actually."
That's not entirely true. There was at least one review that thought his crooning style was one of the most repellent things they had ever seen in any production.
"Oh really, well, I don't know," Kenyon says, smiling faintly.
He's always been a huge admirer of Michael Ball, he adds. He manages to say this with a straight face.
Kenyon is no crossover lightweight, however. He used to be the classical music critic for the New Yorker, the editor of The Listener and chief critic of the Observerhe even wrote a little for The Catholic Herald once and he was Controller of Radio 3. He will head London's premier arts centre, the Barbican, in September after his final Proms season ends.
He has always been serious about his music. It all started with his Catholic school choir. They sent him down to London to the Westminster Cathedral summer school where he met Sir George Malcolm and Colin Mawby, who, at the time, were at the forefront of the Early Music revolution. They took him to a Prom rehearsal where . Jacqueline du Pre was playing the Elgar cello concerto: "So that was fairly unforgettable."
After that he started to learn other instruments: first the cello and then the bassoon. ("I didn't like being one of 12 cellos I wanted to be more of an individual.") At secondary school he sang leading ladies in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas "One was at that age".
He developed a keen interest in early music and contemporary music and he has done much to keep these a Proms priority although, for some, it is never enough.
His cradle Catholicism played an important role in this musical development, though he now seems to have drifted away from it a little it's unclear why and he's no longer so intimate with Church music.
I ask him if he's a practising Catholic.
"Yes, mmm..." he mumbles. "I wouldn't go so far as... I wouldn't quite say that. But I used to play the organ at St Dorninic's Priory in north London."
While he doesn't like to be considered any sort of authority on Church music, he does remember that the new liturgical music that came in with the introduction of the vernacular was really very exciting. "It went slightly more towards the popular end of the spectrum but now there's a reasonable balance and places like West minster Cathedral are on very good form musically."
I ask if it annoys him when they have weak guitar music in liturgical services. I foresee him batting the question away with a nervous chuckle.
Instead there's a smile and he muffles a "yes".
He doesn't, however, think the Church should condemn it and criticised Pope Benedict last year in the Telegraph when the Vatican appeared to be moving against the use of "contemporary idioms" ie rock music in services.
"I don't think it's a function of the infallibility of the Pope that they're able to pronounce on music," he tells me.
It is difficult to gauge his opinion of the Pope. It seems lukewarm at best. When I ask Kenyon about his article about Benedict XVI he laughs and starts talking about the Cardinal: "Well, I think it's wonderful that we've got a musically literate Cardinal at the moment, err...
Is he pleased with the way Pope Benedict is leading the Church?
"Yes, yes, mrrun, absolutely," he says hesitantly. "I think having anybody culturally sympathetic and aware is a positive thing."
He thinks there is an enormously similar experience in the ritual of a church service and the ritual of a great concert.
"One of the reasons that people come to the Proms is not only for the music but also for the whole surrounding experience; the sense of participating in a community; the ritual; having their eyes and ears lifted beyond the everyday, the mundane, to something greater. It seems an analogous sort of thing."
I ask him if he ever felt uncomfortable with any aspect of the Prom ritual?
"Well obviously... um..." he pauses. "What's the right answer to that?... Well, I would be worried about the implications of the Last Night of the Prams if I thought it was becoming too nationalistic or too jingoistic,he says, almost controversially. But as with his other potentially contentious statements, Kenyon always has a mollifying counterstatement to follow.
"But I don't think it is and we're trying to move towards it just being a very inclusive celebration of people singing together."
Some have accused him of concentrating too much on fashionably anodyne ideas such as "inclusivity" and "diversity" to the neglect of music something that was levelled against him while he was Controller of Radio 3 as well.
For example, he once said: "Our first aim must be to achieve a multicultural audience and it is that that all our audience development must be geared to."
He denies he ever said it was his only priority but admits the state ment is, essentially, accurate.
"It's one of our priorities that we need to reflect the way society is today, and I think the more we can do that the better."
So, now, the Proms do an annual trip to the suburbs Brixton, Hackney, Hammersmith where they try to involve people who've never even seen an orchestra.
"Of course that's not going to change things overnight but it is going to edge things forward," he says.
He isn't naively optimistic about the future of classical music but does think the doomsayers are wrong.
"What they're talking about is a very small bit of classical music industry which is the record industry and of course that's changing because they were completely blind and unimaginative about how they responded to new ways of delivering classical music."
For him, the Proms have a healthy future. Though only if it finds new ways of "delivering".
"I think it was Stockhausen who said that the concert halls would be the cathedrals of the future and there is something in that, particularly when you look at the Albert Hall and that sort of big circular arena: there's a sense of community there. It's great."
Kenyon has done much to make it so. Let's just hope it lasts.
Proms review: Page 12