The Proms is a landmark event with a mixed image. It’s grand status as a bastion of classical music events, is overshadowed by perceptions of an ageing audience, and a prejudice of being too stagnant to be enjoyable. Nevertheless, this annual convention of regulars, enthusiasts, and inquisitive first-timers has endured over the decades. Step into a piece of history…..
A bit of context goes a long way……
Stemming from my childhood, I have a chequered memory of the Proms. I recall a rather stuffy affair, somewhat similar to Songs of Praise on a Sunday evening. To me, the Proms was rather abstract, inhabited by the elite of classical music devotees; part of the BBC’s small ‘artsy’ repertoire, held at a rather grand London venue during the summer. If you had asked me to succinctly explain what the Proms actually was, it would have been similar to asking a monkey to explain the salient points of quantum physics!
Prom is short for promenade concert, which in days gone by was an outdoor concert. Over time, a series of shorter alfresco concerts, light & relaxed in nature, migrated indoors. Robert Newman (an English businessman and avid music lover) was a key architect of creating more informal classical music concerts in the nineteenth century. He collaborated with Sir Henry Wood (an English conductor), and these cultural icons eventually morphed into the BBC Proms in 1927.
In 1941 the Proms moved to its current home of The Royal Albert Hall in London. The venue retains one of the key features of the original format: to allow a vast array of standing audience members. The current Proms repertoire represents a mix of new innovative works, alongside more classical pieces. These are delivered in ten to thirty-minute segments. The “Last Night of the Proms” is the most famous and popular evening, mostly due to its jovial and celebratory style.
So fast-forward to 2016, an unexpected invite from friends, and I experienced my first tentative foray into this classical institution. Now, three years later, a regular staple of my annual calendar is cemented at this auspicious event.
What to expect……
The Royal Albert Hall is a true giant in UK entertainment venues. Approaching the wonderful oval dome, it invokes a mixture of feelings. It’s cream and burgundy façade presents itself as some sort of neo-classical sporting venue. Upon arrival, you know you are somewhere special. The Romanesque motifs that adorn the top-third of the building somehow present the impression that you are entering a gladiatorial arena. What magic it holds inside is now a contemporary mix; anywhere from circus acts, ballet, pop, opera, classical music, and theatre plays. It’s a venue that is truly adaptable.
The Proms is typically held over an eight-week period. This year we opted to attend on a Friday evening, with an exciting playlist laid out. Part of the charm of the Proms is the mixed nature of what you can expect. Forget any expectation that you will have to sit through a two-hour symphony. The segments here are short: long enough to retain your attention, but not too long that you will suddenly awaken to find your face in that bowl of ice-cream you purchased at the interval.
Given the competitive prices, we indulged in a box seat just to the left side of the orchestra as you look at it. We had decided to attend Prom 8, titled ‘Youthful Beginnings’. This evening, the venue was only 70% full and even less so in the boxes. This made it very easy to navigate through the crowds, and it did not feel too overwhelming. As we took our seats, some beautiful neon lighting created the mood of a misty evening, and very quickly a wonderful sense of relaxation covered me like a silk sheet.
The performance was split into two halves of under one hour each. In one of my earlier posts, I commented on how I have tried to read classical music and avoid approaching it as a pure listening exercise. The first pieces from Lili Boulanger were playful, dance-like, and whimsical. As I listened, I could almost imagine the ballerinas and fairies dancing around a campfire. I have no idea how this visual image emanated, but this is some of the magic from such beautifully composed melodies. It affords your imagination to roam free into realms that are not constrained by our physical world. You’re on the brink of feeling like a child again.
From this balletic introduction, the heavyweight of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1. began, sublimely played by the enigmatic Bertrand Chamayou (on his Proms debut nonetheless). Listening to the intensity of rhythm, and watching the incredible skill of pitting the piano against the orchestra, is a wonder to behold. The synchronisation of all the strings duelling with the fervent energy of the pianist is certain to give you chills. I have always held two types of people in great esteem: those who are multi-lingual, and those who can play a musical instrument. As I sat there, the realisation of how much effort, dedication, and investment that is involved to master the piano at this level is nothing short of inspirational.
As the format is iterative in nature, the breaks, coupled with a generous interval, makes the experience unobtrusive and graceful. The music is frenetic in places, dramatic, and serene. Washed down with some good food and quality drink, this is the perfect foil for a cultural evening out.
The essentials: prices and standards……
The Royal Albert Hall is located a good twenty-minute walking from South Kensington tube station (District & Circle line). There is little dress code, although string-vests and flip-flops I imagine would be discouraged (wink-wink!).
Once arrived, there is an extensive selection of restaurants offering a wide range of gastronomic options. If you are booking via their website, you have the extremely convenient option of reserving a restaurant space as part of the overall booking process. In my experience, most restaurants are competitively priced (although if you are after good wines at Berry Bros in the basement then you will pay a premium).
For a finer experience, then do check out the box seats ticket prices. Although you may not get the full-frontal view as you do from the stalls, what you do gain is privacy and the avoidance of the embarrassing sideways-shuffle when desperately trying to exit your seat and make it to the bar at the interval! If you do make it into a box then consider the ‘Food and Drink in your Box’ option, which allows you to have picnic-style goodies delivered through the performance. Your two-hours of feeling like an aristocrat!