Last weekend my son and I took part in one of British culture’s quintessential activities, doing the Proms. In a very long weekend we managed four concerts, three taking parts, two talks and one Rum and Chocolate Crêpe!
At sixteen, Robert has passed ABRSM Grade Eight on both Piano and Clarinet and is about to start A levels in Music and Music Technology. This seemed an ideal time to introduce him to promming and also to broaden his musical horizons. We had been to the Proms a few years before to see Martin Fröst playing the unique Peacock Tales by Anders Hillborg but that time we went ‘posh in a box’.
We had bought a pair of Weekend Arena Passes. These are far and away the cheapest and most efficient way to see the Proms but there are a number of pitfalls for the inexperienced prommer; having a pass is only the beginning of getting in to the Royal Albert Hall.
Firstly, you have to overcome the Regulars. They are well meaning and, by the end, were friendly and welcoming, but you do start off feeling as though you are gatecrashing someone else’s party.
“Oh no, you need to be in the other queue,” seemed to be the standard response to asking what we should be doing.
Secondly, you have to get past the stewards; in their bright red jackets they look like a Butlin’s throwback but cross them at your peril. They issue the most important item for entering the Hall: raffle tickets. These fix your position in the queue and, most importantly, allow you to leave it without losing your place.
Finally, you need to appreciate the geography of the place. The Royal Albert Hall is a vast building with a plethora of corridors, staircases and levels. Being at the wrong door or on the wrong floor can be very costly in terms of time or position.
We got better as the weekend went on. On the first evening we had tea in Hyde Park then went to the wrong entrance so didn’t get in until the doors had been open for a while. This concert was not as popular in the Arena, however, so even with being late and raffle-ticket-less, we still got quite a good position. On the Saturday we discovered raffle tickets and were given numbers in the high two hundreds getting in a few rows further up. By Sunday we were old hands and for the next two Proms had tickets in the high teens and could go pretty much where we wanted.
Friday 26th Prom 56: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov
R. Strauss: Burleske [Kirill Gerstein, piano]
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor
Centre of the Arena, eight rows back
The Strauss seemed an odd pairing with Mahler with no obvious musicological reason for their juxtaposition. Gerstein played impressively; it was interesting being close enough to see where the pianist was looking. He didn’t directly look at the tympanist but dropped his shoulder enough to spot him peripherally. He did glance several times at the woodwind when exchanging phrases; anyone sat down would have seen him apparently watching the conductor. All too soon it was ‘half-time’ and on to the meat of the feast. The first movement of Mahler’s Sixth was highly energetic and only served to highlight the insubstantial nature of the Burleske. Placing the Scherzo second [Mahler not seeming to make his mind up through his life which way round the two middle movements should be] means there is little respite and even the trio seemed rather heavy in this performance. Finally relief arrived with a beautifully poised rendition of the Andante. On to the Finale which seemed to have less intensity than I would have expected. Perhaps this was due to attention drifting to the percussionist wielding surely the largest gavel in the world; he struggled to get it over his shoulder some time before the hammer blow falls so that he could get balanced before bringing it crashing down on the large wooden desk in front of him. The tympanist on the row in front had to turn round and move the table legs back from the edge so that he didn’t end up with a head full of table on the second blow. It did seem odd not having the final blow and the off stage cow bells and chimes were an added distraction. A good concert, but nothing special.
Robert’s verdict: Liked the use of harmony in the Strauss. Appreciated the Mahler but not so keen on the chromaticism; felt it was one movement too many.
Saturday 27th Proms Plus Family Orchestra & Chorus:
Mozart and Beethoven
We were somewhat early having over-estimated tube journey times so allowed ourselves a most enjoyable wander down memory lane as we revisited the Science Museum after a break of several years. As twelve thirty approached we toddled along to the Royal College of Music whereupon we bumped into a colleague from work and his family! We were all a little surprised to see that there were no music stands and when we started with a simple chord of C major I wondered what on earth I had brought Robert to! After the initial activities we split into sectionals before returning to put everything together into a final performance. The event did get better as it progressed but with a number of children at a good musical standard, and several Heads of Music and other ‘proper’ musicians amongst the parents, the opportunities for extension were not fully explored. It did seem to depend on which assisting staff you had; the key string helper was clearly used to working with children and looked at ease all day. The lead wind helpers, although obviously brilliant musicians, were not as comfortable in front of a group and tended towards the lowest common denominator. It was noticeable in our group work that the musical parents were trying very hard not to lead the session but we did have to keep prompting to make the wind contribution worthwhile. As it was, our bit got drastically edited in the final version, when the lead wind helper seemed to lose a bit of confidence in his team and cut down our contribution from its quite impressive theme, three variations, recapitulation and coda to just a couple of eight bar chunks, whilst the strings and chorus performed most of Flanders and Swann’s “Ill Wind”.
Robert’s verdict: fairly enjoyable but not very challenging.
With several hours before the concert and still ignorant of stewards and raffle tickets we wandered round the Earth section of the Natural History Museum which doesn’t appear to have changed in a while and now does not compare well with its neighbour, so we went off to find coffee, muffins and wi-fi, returning just before the doors opened to discover we should have collected some sort of ticket!
Saturday 27th Prom 57: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, David Zinman
Anders Hillborg: Cold Heat
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major [Maria João Pires]
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, ‘Eroica’
Centre of the Arena, five rows back
The Hillborg piece was much as might have been expected, having heard his music before and attended a pre-prom talk by him about his method of composition. There were elements that I liked but much of it was simply walls of sound, which I suspect is the idea, but did little for me. There was then time for a little prommers abuse of the piano movers, and applause for the Leader having successfully played a piano A for tuning; she was clearly new to the Proms as she was surprised by the sudden burst of clapping and sat down rather red-faced with a bemused smile, much to the amusement of her colleagues. Pires walked on to the platform looking more like a lost art teacher, complete with smock and dangly earrings, than a legendary concert pianist; but then she started to play. Talking afterwards and again the following day, some people felt it a little safe but I found it beautifully precise, poised and elegant. As with the previous prom it was interesting to watch the soloist work with the orchestra; she seemed to play much of the middle movement looking at the woodwind rather than the keyboard. The orchestra were indeed worth watching; they moved much more than the BBC SO the previous night and were regularly swaying in unison along with the music. You almost felt that the string players in particular had annotated their scores with dynamics, bowing AND choreography. Half-time actually in the middle and more abuse of scene shifters before the Beethoven got under way. Zinman is clearly one of those conductors who likes to direct rather than beat. This chimes with the involvement in the music that the players’ movement suggests but led to a fair amount of imprecision. This was most notable in the second movement where his focus on stirring up the intensity of the tune in the first violins, especially on the recapitulation, meant that the basses had no idea where their upbeat figures should go. This all added up to a feeling of ‘never mind the quality, feel the passion’ which was made more marked by comparison with the absolute care shown by the soloist in the first half. Overall an enjoyable concert, enlivened by the Mozart.
Robert’s verdict: Really liked the Hillborg especially the contrasts in tonal and rhythmic colours. Appreciated the artistry of the pianist, was not convinced by the conductor.
Sunday 28th Proms Plus Come & Sing: Mendelssohn’s Elijah
Now that we had got the hang of this promming lark, we got in early enough to have lunch in the queue and pick up our raffle tickets before joining the next queue to get into the Hall. Having signed in, been issued our scores and waved at some people from the previous take part event, we joined the exclusive ranks of the tenors, as ever hugely outnumbered by the other voices. We started with a very energetic and enjoyable warm up, some of which I had done before several bits not, which were duly stored away for future use! Then we piled in to the work; the session as a whole was very well managed with a good balance between bits of recap and individual part-work and sections of crashing through to the end, however it had gone. The points made by the director were of a sufficient variety that all levels of performer could take something away. There were just two disappointments: firstly, that we were at the wrong end of the building, in the seats facing the stage, rather than in the choir seats and that we were accompanied by a rather shrill sounding Roland not the organ or even some token players: a dozen or so BBC Singers had been drafted in to help out, not that I really noticed the tenors as they rather pointlessly stuck themselves off to one end, so could not some instrumentalists or just an organist be provided? Overall a very good session but could have been special.
Robert’s verdict: Enjoyed singing in the Royal Albert Hall and having a first real taste of Elijah; didn’t see why we had to be at the wrong end.
Sunday 28th Proms Plus Intro: Mendelssohn’s Elijah
We returned to the queue for the sake of appearances before moving to the next queue for the pre-prom talk back in the College. I particularly liked having Radio Three on the speakers with the announcer handing over to Andrew McGregor, sat a few feet away from us. It was very interesting to hear the process involved in putting on an ‘authentic’ performance of Elijah and the interesting quirk that the Gabrieli musicians, having mostly played music earlier than this, were coming at the project from the right direction chronologically looking forward from Bach and Handel et al unlike the rest of us who were looking backwards to 1846. There was an impassioned plea for more music, especially singing, in the national curriculum; if people don’t gain a love of group music as school children they will never turn up to do it as an adult so where will large amateur choirs get their singers from when the current ageing crop have died out?
Sunday 28th Prom 58: Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh
Rosemary Joshua, soprano
Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano
Robert Murray, tenor
Simon Keenlyside, baritone
Left of the Arena, front row
Back to the Hall for a little more queuing and an in depth discussion of where to view from, prompted by the over-amorous concerns of one female regular as to where the, apparently dishy, baritone soloist was going to stand. Robert and I decided to go for the front row and ended up towards the left hand end of the stage. Said female was rather disappointed to discover she was on the distaff side of the house but relented a little later on when the small, if solid, boy soloist sang very nicely towards the end of the first half prompting much ‘aw’ and ‘bless’ at the interval. I was concerned that acoustically we might just get first violins and sopranos and little else but the tonal balance was surprisingly good. The view of the woodwind was poor being so close but it was very interesting being side on to the conductor and able to see how hard he worked to keep his mostly young singers going. We also got to see the difficulties caused by working to ‘authentic’ constraints. Using gut strings on violins means you are more likely to have a string break; much of the second half saw violins passed backwards and forwards from a front desk player to the auxiliaries behind her as they struggled to refit her E string whilst given her a working violin for as much as possible. By the end the floor was littered with discarded strings and packets and she looked close to tears as the thunderous applause echoed round the Hall, having clearly not enjoyed an event she must have been looking forward to for months. The baritone was excellent with just enough acting in his part to bring the work alive. The tenor was good but did not really match Keenlyside’s tone and was a little thin on the higher notes. The sopranos sang well, especially Connolly as the Queen, joining in with enough acting to take the performance beyond just a concert rendition without lashing of ham. The enthusiasm, stamina and accuracy of the massed choirs was commendable and the playing of the Players was as precise and elegant as one would expect from such an accomplished and established ensemble and yet . . . and yet, good, at times thrilling, but not great.
Robert’s verdict: Very good – can we go back to the middle for tomorrow?!
Monday 29th Proms Plus Family Orchestra & Chorus:
With a degree of trepidation we returned to the College for Monday’s come and play activity. Fortunately, on the way in I spotted the red-jacketed queens of the queues emerging on the other side of the road and rushed across for another pair of low numbered raffle tickets. On returning to the foyer I was able to advise some promming newbies to do likewise; interestingly, their day queue numbers were over a hundred higher but later on I noticed that they had still managed to get good positions about five rows back if somewhat off centre. Another good and interesting warm-up set the scene for a much more rewarding session. Most of the helpers were the same but the addition of an older tuba player was key to the success of the wind and brass sectional element. Also, there were more whole group activities the first based loosely on Maria West Side Story, then I Got Rhythm and finally the tune to Somewhere over the Rainbow. These had the flexibility that was missing on Saturday to allow better musicians to explore and challenge themselves within a coherent overall structure that was still accessible to beginners. A very enjoyable and rewarding two hours which, tellingly, flew by.
Robert’s verdict: That was fun! Can we be in the middle tonight?
Monday 29th Proms Plus Intro: Hooray for Hollywood
We had lunch in the queue and nattered for a little before sliding down to South Kensington to Crèmerie Crêperie that we had spotted on the way to the tube the previous evening, followed soon after by the pair of musicians we had helped earlier to whom we had mentioned this promising looking establishment. Robert piled into his rum and chocolate crêpe with real banana milkshake, while I was a little more restrained with my chocolate twist and large latté. Suitably fortified and most pleased with our culinary diversion, we left the others tucking in, as we popped back to the queue for another token appearance before making a noisily demonstrative move to the talk queue. This was recorded rather than going out live and was strange at first as the main man, John Wilson, seemed distracted and not really focused, almost as if he didn’t want to be there. However, he warmed up and his dry Geordie humour began to come across as did his detailed knowledge of, and passion for, the music of musicals. There were little nuggets of information that were of note. The majority of his players are leaders in their own orchestras. When asked if this led to tension in the ranks he said that it meant that everyone played up to their potential rather than in a lesser grouping where you tend towards the lowest common denominator. Also, the final soloist was not confirmed until just two weeks before the concert. Finally, the cost of the sellotape for putting together all the scores and parts for the evening was £1600!!!!
Robert’s verdict: That was interesting – can we go in the middle tonight?
Monday 29th Prom 59: John Wilson Orchestra, John Wilson
Maida Vale Singers
“Hooray for Hollywood”
Centre of the Arena, second row
Oh my! Just a magical evening of music. Right from the thrilling Overture, the band were so exact yet committed in everything they played, the choir were both precise and flexible: witty, sad, forward, withdrawn, a perfect foil for the stars out front. It was noticeable that the clientèle especially in the arena but also in the seats was different from the other three proms with many younger people and a fair number that were clearly in the Hall for the very first time. This gave the place a different dynamic with a greater sense of anticipation and excitement before a note was even played. The heat and excitement was a little too much for one young girl next to us who nearly fainted in the first half, but womanfully stuck it out to the end. Also, there seemed to be less coughing and other extraneous noises, or perhaps I was too engrossed in the music to notice. There were little touches that made the evening special such as Beechey’s cut-glass accent as Mary Poppins, working beautifully against Ford’s ‘cock-er-ney’ Bert and the ridiculous outfits for the Triplet’s Song. Castronovo as Lanza was an inspired choice and his rendition of Serenade was genuinely spine-tingling. Sarah Fox was beautifully poised and controlled in Can’t Help Singing and Caroline O’Connor wrung the heart-strings dry in The Man That Got Away. Several of the Singers got their moment in the limelight, not least Nigel Richards in a perfectly judged Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat, full of wit yet with just a touch of pathos. The evening was scheduled to end at around half-nine but as the band piled into the first of their encores at a little after ten, no-one seemed to mind and almost no-one had left. There was time for one more special moment with Caroline O’Connor wonderfully committed rendition of There’s no Business Like Show Business, that drew genuine appreciation from her fellow soloists. A really special end to a long but rewarding weekend.
Robert’s verdict: Wow! That was good in the middle.
- Buying a promming pass is the best way to see the Proms. With a little planning you can get right up close to the performers in a way that is simply not possible in any other venue without forking out top dollar.
- You do need to know how to work the system with the raffle tickets. This doesn’t mean cheating, but planning ahead, bringing packed lunch and tea, knowing when you should be where for anything else that is happening and telling the people around you, and probably the stewards too, where you are going.
- If you are not a regular visitor to London, get an Oyster card; you can top them up on-line, you don’t have to fiddle for change and they are cheaper than normal tickets. It’s a no-brainer!
- Strangely enough, promming involves a lot of standing; for Elijah we were on our feet for three hours just in the performance not to mention in the queues: bring a cushion! Regulars have lightweight fold-up chairs, and/or simply dump stuff in the conveniently nearby parked car.
- The ‘come and take part’ sessions were a little hit-and-miss and could in the main have been made more rewarding with just a little tweaking on the BBC’s part. However, they were all enjoyable and should be investigated, especially for families with younger musical children.
- There is a danger with so much access to recorded or broadcast music that people miss out on the excitement of live music in a big venue. Some of the pieces were merely very good. Each concert had its special moments: thrilling loud parts in the Mahler and the Mendelssohn, seeing a legend play perfect Mozart, dramatic solo work in Elijah, a world class tenor singing Serenade. However good they might come across on the radio, internet or television, even with the most expensive equipment they do not and cannot sound the same as actually being there. Appreciating the artistry of some of the best musicians on the planet in surely the most iconic arena in the world, packed to the rafters, is an incomparable experience; miss it, and you miss out.