Friday night brings with it the First Night of the Proms, the opening fanfare of over one hundred concerts which will draw to a close with one last rousing chorus of Jerusalem on September 10th. In between, performances of every shade of classical music will be on offer from a phalanx of the world’s finest performers.
The Proms are inevitably beloved of diehard classical music fans, but what makes it truly special is the tradition dating back to 1895 of “Promenading” – initially a reference to an area through which the audience could stroll as the orchestra played, it’s a term now synonymous with widespread access to incredible music at very low cost. What’s more, for all but one night of the season, there’s not a Union Flag hat to be seen.
This will be my seventh year promming, making me but a wee snip of a lad in the world of the promenaders. Hopefully I can pass on a few useful tips to those who are as yet uninitiated.
1. Be there
No, really be there. If you choose to watch it on TV then before long you’ll encounter Charles Hazelwood. Shortly afterwards you’ll be throwing things at your TV while screaming “dear Lord! Never in the history of HD has there been so much chest hair!”. If you really can’t be there in person, try listening on Radio 3. Every Prom is broadcast live, and this year the Proms will be broadcast in HD audio on the BBC Proms website at www.bbc.co.uk/proms
The experience is truly immersive when you share a space with both the performers and an enthusiastic audience. If you’ve never been to a classical music concert before, day tickets are a great way to try it out at just £5 per concert. Thanks to cheap travel from the likes of Megabus, you can get from Newcastle to the floor of the Albert Hall for just £10.
Programmes are inexpensive, but bring your phone and you should be able to access programme notes from the Proms website shortly before the concert begins.
2. Arena or Gallery?
There are £5 tickets for either the Arena, which is the large area directly in front of the stage, or the Gallery – a large corridor running around the top of the Hall.
For most concerts the Arena is standing room only, so be prepared to stand for up to 90 minutes at a time in order to get up close and personal with the performers. The hardcore prommers are all season ticket holders who get priority entry, so don’t hold out hope of being right at the front. There, down at the rail at the very front, be dragons. Margaret (or George, or BIll, or Hilda) has been standing in the same spot for 30 years and she won’t take kindly to you muscling in on her place.
I, against the common wisdom of the true music aficionados, much prefer the Gallery. Here you can stretch out on the floor (bring a rug), kick your shoes off, and even enjoy an indoor picnic. Though bringing your own food is technically against the rules, the good people of the Albert Hall tend to look the other way. To my knowledge no-one has ever been expelled over a bit of cheese and pickle. It’s a welcoming and convivial atmosphere, and for most concerts the sound is still great.
For many concerts reserved, seating tickets are still available. Booking information is on the BBC Proms website. Returns are frequently available at the Box Office in the hours running up to a concert.
3. Be prepared to queue
If you’re promming for £5, be prepared to queue in all weathers. Queues regularly snake far in to the distance away from the Albert Hall, but don’t be disheartened – once the queues start moving (usually around 30 minutes before the concert is due to start) they move quickly.
If you queue with friends you can nominate someone to keep your place while you slip off to the nearby Imperial College students union bar for an exceptionally cheap drink or two, and a burger from their quadrangle barbecue. If you’ve bought a reserved seat and so don’t need to queue, the food in the Albert Hall’s Cafe Consort is delicious and not overly expensive.
4. Manners maketh for a pleasant evening
On a summer’s night with thousands in the Hall, it can get hot. Very hot. The lifelong promenaders rub shoulders convivially, though they are simultaneously wrapped in a uniquely impenetrable etiquette and hierarchy. It is easy to transgress upon their unwritten boundaries and on a hot night tempers can flare – particularly if you try and push to the front or squeeze in where there isn’t a space.
Keep a calm head and a cooling bottle of water to hand, and all will be well. If you DO find yourself accosted by an angry prommer, remember they only see daylight and other human beings for a few precious weeks each year. Grin and bear it.
5. Come with an open mind, and open ears
You never know what you might hear at the Proms. In the last couple of years the chilled and intimate atmosphere of the late night (10pm) concerts have been a particular highlight for me, and irrespective of the programme I commend the experience to you. Family and themed Proms are now commonplace, as are concerts in other venues around London and even shopping centres. In 2006 I attended over 20 Proms without ever looking to see what was being performed beforehand. It was a thrilling season.
End the evening with a leisurely stroll back to South Kensington tube – many rush, and end up crushed together once more in the first few trains which come along.
Give it a go, and if you don’t like it you can always leave during the interval just £5 poorer – but I’ll bet you that £5 that you’ll still be there as the final applause slips in to the appreciative hum of those who’ve had a thrilling evening.