Where’s the best place to hear a BBC Prom? Standing right up close to the performers in Royal Albert Hall? Perhaps on a seat a little further back? Or maybe at home on the radio: on the sofa, in the kitchen, in the bath… Whatever your preference, we’re not going to take issue. We simply know that, for us at BBC Music Magazine, the Proms season is one of the glories of the classical music year.
And what’s more, unlike most other things the Brits traditionally look forward to in a summer, it’s reliable too: it doesn’t get rained off, it doesn’t get knocked out disappointingly in the quarter-finals, it doesn’t fall victim to French baggage handler strikes. But which features and quirks of the Proms in particular so excite, enthuse and enthral us? Below we present our Top 15, complete with occasional commentary by Roger Wright – as a previous Controller of the BBC Proms for 7 years, he understandably has quite a soft spot for them too…
1. The Proms Guide
Football fans will tell you that one of the most anticipated days of the year doesn’t feature any football at all: it is the day when the season’s fixture list is published. Ditto music lovers and the publication of the Proms Guide. So closely guarded is the seasons programme that trying to find out its details before publication date is akin to extracting a beautiful chord from a one-stringed viola. But then, come mid-April, the Guide hits the shops and we can all start to mark the diaries. Even with nearly 100 concerts to play with, the controller has an impossible task in trying to please everyone, and the letters in the press complaining of the lack of British composers such as Alwyn, Arnold and Brian are almost as much a tradition as the Proms themselves. That, Wright says, is not a problem: ‘The important thing is that people care…’
2. The First Night
If the Proms season goes out in a blaze of much-hyped Last Night whizzes and bangs, it arrives in a more discreet fashion – knocking on the door on a Friday evening, clutching a bottle and suggesting that a couple of months of top quality music might be nice. There’s no set format for the First Night. Some seasons have seen ‘taster’ concerts in which we are given glimpses of themes to come, while others start off with one major work. Either way is just as effective: before you know it, the Proms have kicked off their shoes, stretched out on your sofa and made themselves at home. And very welcome they are, too.
The First Night of the Proms 2017
3. The Queue
For many, the Proms queue is all part of the fun. To find out how high profile a certain Prom is, just take a potter around SW7 2AP a couple of hours before it begins – the number of Promenaders snaking round the block will tell you all you need to know. Proms audiences queue with a zeal similar to their tennis-loving counterparts at Wimbledon, and for the really big-name concerts it’s not rare to see a number of die-hards setting out their pitch in the early hours of the morning, thermos flask and good book in hand. And no, Prommers are not blessed with supersized bladders: the Albert Hall stewards have a system by which numbered tickets are handed to queuers, allowing them to pop off for the occasional ‘comfort break’.
4. Hyde Park
Here’s a tip. If you’re going to a Prom and already have a ticket, don’t just make a beeline for the Albert Hall. Should you be taking the London Underground, it’s worth considering travelling only as far as one of the stations the other side of Hyde Park (Lancaster Gate is a good option) and ambling gently over from there. Bring some sandwiches, sit on a bench near the Albert Memorial, watch the joggers running past and the skateboarders falling over. All subject to good weather, of course, which we accept can’t be taken for granted round these parts.
5. The Arena
Those who choose to pay for a ticket on the day and stand fit into two groups: the Gallery (see below) and the Arena. Those in the Arena are arguably the very life and soul of the Proms. Inevitably the loudest, most enthusiastic members of the audience, their closeness to the action gives them a unique rapport with the performers. Some, admittedly, do appear to the casual observer as being one quaver short of the full bar, but anyone who can stand for four-plus hours of Wagner on a hot July evening gets our respect.
6. The Gallery
Standing right up at the very top of the Albert Hall, the denizens of the Gallery get a unique view of the Proms experience in its full splendour. It is, says Wright, a very special place: ‘When I used to Prom regularly, that’s where I preferred to be. There’s a real camaraderie there. And you have the freedom to lie down.’ While the stage may seem miles away, the sound up here is surprisingly good.
Piano concertos at the Proms come with a little pre-performance extra. As the Steinway grand is rolled on to the stage, the sight of its lid being lifted is greeted by a shout of ‘Heave!’ from the Prommers in the Arena, to which those in the Gallery reply ‘Ho!’. For amusement’s sake, we’d love to see one piano lugger rapidly lift the lid up and down… up and down… up and down… just to hear the results. But doing so would probably be more than their job is worth.
8. The A on the Piano
Once the Steinway is in place with lid up, someone has to play a note so that the orchestra can tune up to it. That job falls to a front-desk violinist. When he or she plays the required A, a round of applause follows from the Prommers. It’s a well-worn routine, but still somehow amusing.
9. Late Night Proms
It takes over 5,000 concert-goers to fill the Royal Albert Hall (not to mention 4,000 holes). So, when just a fraction of that number turns up to watch a concert, it has a wonderful feeling of emptiness to it. Starting at around 10pm, the Late Night Proms are when those in the Arena, after jostling shoulder-to-shoulder earlier in the evening, now find they have the room to spread out a little. A fair few lie blissfully on the floor, gazing up at the ceiling and losing themselves in the glories of, say, a Bach cantata or some mesmerising Minimalism. The hall’s spaces may be huge, but the experience is intimate.
Radio 1 Ibiza Prom 2015
10. The Mushrooms
And here’s what those ceiling-gazers are looking at. In 1969, a large number of fibreglass discs were suspended from the roof of the Albert Hall in a bid to tackle the auditorium’s notorious echo. What started life as a technical audio fix has since acquired an iconic visual status too – lit up in a ghostly blue, the ‘mushrooms’ are particularly loved by BBC TV directors hunting for that suitably arty mid-Debussy camera shot.
(Credit: Royal Albert Hall)
11. Kids Proms
The calm and contemplation of the Late Night Proms finds its antithesis when the hordes of kiddies bounce noisily into the Royal Albert Hall on a weekend afternoon. These afternoon matinees involve seeing the public’s favourite time-traveller, Doctor Who to the gruesome tales of Horrible Histories. They’re accompanied by parents whom tradition dictates that we describe as ‘long-suffering’ but, in reality are probably every bit as excited as their brood.
It was in 2008 that Roger Wright decided to help Proms-goers discover their inner child and the formula is repeated with the Ten Pieces Prom and the CBeebies this year. Those of us of an older generation, whose earliest Proms memories consist of being dragged along as unwilling six year-olds to patiently absorb and appreciate the finer points of a Bruckner symphony, can only look on in envy. The concept of themed Proms, which has been received so positively, is surely here to stay.
12. The John Wilson Prom
The first time this hand-picked ensemble brought the house down at the Royal Albert Hall was in 2009 to celebrate MGM Film Musicals. Made up of some of the world’s finest musicians, (it’s not everyday you see the leader of the CBSO play Second Violin!) these classical musicals explode back into life to create an evening which you won’t forget. Since then, they’ve presented programmes of everything from Rogers and Hammerstein to My Fair Lady. Not unexpectedly, Prom goers have embraced them with open arms and toe-tapping feet.
13. Prommers with Buckets
Should our towel-and-soap man ever become reality, we’d hope that he’d donate his profits to one of the Prommers’ charities. One of the more charming aspects of each concert is when, during the interval, a unison chorus pipes up from the front-left corner of the Arena. ‘Arena to Audience…’ begins the Prommers’ spiel, before they inform the hall how much money they’ve raised during the season by collecting coins (and the occasional note) in buckets as concert-goers leave at the end of each performance. Hearing how the total has risen each day is a heartwarming moment.
14. The Organ
Refurbished in 2004, the Royal Albert Hall organ is a mighty beast indeed. It’s not the largest in the UK – Liverpool Cathedral boasts that accolade – but it’s certainly got the most impressive rumble. Sometimes, such as in JanáΩek’s Taras Bulba or Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica, its full potential is unleashed and the sound is truly impressive, though sit in the wrong part of the Albert Hall on those occasions and you’re in danger of hearing all organ, no orchestra. At other times, however – ‘Saturn’ in Holst’s Planets, for instance – it is that strange feeling of the hall vibrating around you that tells you that the organist has pulled out the 64′ stop and is moving his feet stealthily over the pedal board…
Martin Neary plays Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor at the First Night of the Proms 2004
15. The Last Night
The flag-waving shenanigans of the Last Night is, to be frank, not everyone’s cup of tea, and one former Proms controller infamously admitted to his dislike of the occasion in print. But any event that gets millions across the UK listening to classical music and is known right across the world can’t be a bad thing. So for one evening, forget the ‘purist’ qualms, stick on the dicky bow, grab a Union Jack… and enjoy it!
This article first appeared in the July 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine.