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Tom Morris and His Testing Times at the Bristol Old Vic

31/07/2013 15:22 BST | Updated 27/09/2013 10:12 BST
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'The problem I currently face is that some people think they wouldn't be welcome if they attended a classical concert,' says Tom Morris (below), brother of Chris and artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, a man who has been busy organising the Bristol Proms.

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Certainly, those with a genuine love of music are all too often outnumbered by a horde of people more concerned with being seen to tote Union Jacks while mouthing platitudes about a form of music of which they perhaps understand little. People, therefore, of hidden shallows, who are more content to nail their colours to a nationalistic mast. You know them by sight, that tribe of aristocracy worshippers who, during Wimbledon week, lie prone on Henman Hill or Murray's Mound or Becker's Bulge, or whatever it's called these days.

They also make a beeline for the Proms, so surely it is incumbent upon Morris - a man who won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for the National Theatre Broadway production of War Horse in 2011 - to dissociate the Bristol Proms from such embarrassments. But this would involve taking the classical form to the people, rather than waiting for them to appear (Union Jacks in hand) as they always have.

'I have no problem with anyone who wants to go to a classical concert,' he says, 'because those people are fired with the enthusiasm that the music can provide.'

Enthusiasm is one thing, but that will soon wane if the love of music is not there to begin with.

'The point is the Proms week is inspired by the fact that classical music was being performed to packed houses in the 18th and 19th centuries,' says Morris.

So are we entering a new age of egalitarianism? 'If you're passionate about how great music can communicate with anyone, then trying to recover that informal atmosphere is an experiment worth conducting.'

And here's where Morris's assault on musical conservatism is revealed as the experimentation in question. 'For the Bristol Proms, we're testing many things at the same time. Today we've taken out the front pit of the theatre, raised the floor height, and have made the front five rows removable, thereby creating a standing area, a mosh pit if you like. We're not expecting any body surfing during our Chopin concert, but you never know.'

But how does he explain the divide in classical music which separates those who attend concerts from those who feel they are unwelcome? 'It's strange isn't it,' he says. 'Historians say that at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, a culture began to evolve whereby audiences were pressured to be more silent and respectful of the music they were listening to.

'In the early 20th century, if you went to a concert you were getting as close to the sound as you could get in any possible form and via uninterrupted access. Now, you can plug into a hi-fi system by yourself. So technology has overtaken us in a way.'

But perhaps technological advances, introduced to enhance the way music can be appreciated, have yet to affect how love of the form can be engendered. Perhaps all technology can do, at best, is tempt a class of curiosity seekers to hook into the musical experience by way of its gimmicks.

But Morris is pragmatic. 'Artists have always embraced new technologies. For most people, being able to watch the pianist's hands during a concert helps people to listen. For example, when Jan Lisiecki will play at the Proms, his playing will be filmed from all angles. Our hope is that a visual intervention like this will democratise the listening experience.

'All of the experiments are designed to enable varied forms of listening. Our sense is that audiences will find their ears are opened. I'm also certain the results of some of these experiments will be of no use at all!'

He believes that massive change is occurring. 'There is no doubt that new audiences are being engaged through classical music performance, through all sorts of experiments.'

With Classic FM having contributed enormously to the popularisation of classical music, Morris is making the right moves to rid the Proms experience of a stultifying smugness.

'I don't think there is a city elsewhere in Britain where this experimentation could happen. Bristol is, almost inexplicably, a magnet for artists and creative people. Aardman [Animations] are based here, as is the University of the West of England and Bristol University, who are progressive in the exploration of digital technology. There is also probably the most influential digital arts centre in Europe known as The Watershed.

'All this, combined with a very up-for-it audience, makes it a lot easier to stage and programme experimental work in Bristol. More so than in London.'

Morris is adamant that Britain is in what he calls 'a really weird state of extraordinary creative health'.

'The cultural centre is healthy and has enormous capacity to grow,' he says, 'but we have all sorts of old-fashioned knee-jerk resistances to embracing that opportunity.'

The trick, therefore, is to free the UK of its default setting of archaic mores and systems of thought. 'Our country's creative health is a direct result of the increase of investment in the arts - basically the Art Council's budget - which was made between 1997 and 2003. It was a brilliant strategic investment by the then Labour government,' he says.

'But even now, there are confused voices within government about whether the opportunity to invest in the cultural sector should be seized or backed away from. A major way to rejuvenate the British economy is to allow it to be led by the creative sector.'

So the answer to our cultural malady remains a political one, but the Westminster men of steel required for this job are currently barred from involvement by the men of straw.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

Photograph courtesy of Paul Blakemore/The Stage

For more information on the Bristol Old Vic and the Bristol Proms, visit: www.bristololdvic.org.uk