Indoor Picnics and Other Oddities – The BBC Proms


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

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.

Nightmare On Elgar Street

Were you to bury your entire face in the wrong end of a French horn – the bell, as it is called – you could scream yourself hoarse while remaining almost completely unheard by those immediately around you. The horn’s capacity to swallow sound is second only to its more conventional capacity to emit.

Since BBC Radio 3’s schedule was overhauled last month, vaguely unsettling people in sensible shoes have been getting extremely worked up. The BBC has thus far impassively swallowed their noisy protests – acting, to its musically educated detractors, just like the bell of a horn. (It would never do to be simply cross, when there is a tenuous musical metaphor that could be deployed.)

The refuseniks have mustered all of the passive-aggressive-but-ultimately-deferential-petition-writing that you would expect from the Radio 3 audience. One protestor has, rather wonderfully, written a two-part play denouncing the changes. The BBC has, just as wonderfully, broadcasted it.

The main crime which led this section of the Radio 3 audience to rise up like a faded balloon clinging to the roof of a long-deserted party is the introduction of a new breakfast programme. The programme broadcasts relatively short, relatively familiar, relatively unchallenging classical music. This is sprinkled with news and listener comment by Petroc Trelawny, a charming, erudite sort of middle-income man’s Stephen Fry. Since taking up the Breakfast mantle, Trelawny has been stingingly denounced by his critics as a “celebrity”. A harsher word is impossible to imagine.

The “Friends of Radio 3″ have pelted the new show with criticism that it is “dumbing down”. These friends presumably being the sort of friends who, while sitting in your house and eating your food, imagine that by imparting their sanctimonious direction on how you might live a better life, they are in some way being friendly – as opposed to being tossers.

One Friend of Radio 3 who wished to remain anonymous (perhaps in fear that celebrity Petroc’s celebrity hit squad may hunt him down and strangle him with celebrity viola strings leaving him to die a celebrity death) complained to the Telegraph that “In recent months, the BBC has tried to attract those people who may have listened to Classic FM and want to hear some nice tunes…”

Yes indeed. Heaven forbid that the nation, stirring first thing in the morning with foetal vulnerability, might be confronted with the inestimable horror of “nice tunes.”

For what it’s worth, if anyone at Radio 3 is reading this, I like your new breakfast show.

I also like the extraordinary variety across your schedule. For example, I like the fact that you broadcast two full hours every weekend of early music – the only slots on any station where the listener can be certain to hear deliciously obscure music composed three centuries ago or more.

I like that you are one of the few stations to commission new drama.

I like that you give a platform to emerging talent.

I like the way you promote a treasury of recordings and live performance to anyone who wants to listen.

Damn it, first thing in the morning I also like the headlines and weather dropped discreetly between nice tunes.

So have a cheer Radio 3, I still like you. I like you more than before. As for your critics, please, be not downhearted. To return to where I began, with an audience like yours you will always have to contend with the occasional bell end.

* I would use a more contemporary cultural reference here but, remember, I listen to Radio 3.

Hearing the phenomenal40. First glimpse of Striggio's mass in surround sound

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts, a CD and DVD is about to released by a group of singers called I Fagiolini – the little beans. It contains, among other things, two pieces of music for a phenomenal forty separate voices* (hence my attempt to get the #phenomenal40 hashtag off the ground – help!). One is called Spem in Alium (a well known piece to music boffs and people who generally don’t see enough sunlight), and the other is called the Missa Ecco sì beato giorno / ecce beatam lucem.

This is such a crazy, big, groundbreaking recording, I’ve gone out and bought a surround sound DVD system just to hear it at its best.

Composed around 450 years ago, there is a real connection through this music to an age long past, but which fascinates us still – the age of Tudor England, and our intoxication then and now with the elevated lives of royals and high society.

If you’ve seen the first of these two videos, you’ll know that last weekend I was lucky enough to grab a couple of hours with the man who has made this recording happen – Robert Hollingworth. In this video there’s a tantalising extract of the recording, you get a sense of what it is like to stand in the middle of these ethereal voices – choral and instrumental – and how it feels to be totally enveloped by Striggio’s mighty, long lost Mass.

If, like me, you learned a new word while watching the video. You’ll find the definition of “bifurcated” here. A day without learning, ey?

Because this recording is unlike anything so many people will have heard before, I really want to encourage you to share this video and blog post, to get news of the recording out there. If you’re excited by this recording I’d love you to share this blog post, Facebook ‘like’ it (up there at the top!) and if you tweet it, it’d be great if you could use the hashtag #phenomenal40.


More from me:

* It gets even better – at one point the ‘new’ Striggio piece goes up to sixty separate voice lines. Incredible.

Preparing for I Fagiolini’s release of a spectacular recording of a Striggio mass for a #phenomenal40 voices

Two weeks ago my car inched its way through the rain-soaked streets of a run down corner of Ipswich, to pick up a particularly special set of eBay winnings – a surround sound DVD system, won for £60.

One week tomorrow, a spectacular CD and DVD by the vocal group I Fagiolini will be released. It is the first recording of a complex, vast, and yet somehow intimate piece for forty – and then finally sixty – separate voices.  A huge choir. The piece is a mass entitled Ecco sì beato giorno (that blessed day), it was composed 445 years ago, but only very recently rediscovered – there is a Spectator article on the discovery here. I heard its first modern performance at the Proms a couple of years ago, and on the strength of that performance, I am filled with anticipation.

The piece was recorded in the round – with the listener completely surrounded by a circle of singers. That is why this lost jewel of a composition is worth buying a surround sound system for. In eight days from now, I will be able to be surrounded by this magnificent sound, hearing it travel the room around me. The only way, in my opinion, to listen to what should be a ground-breaking recording.

As an introduction to the piece, here is a video from the academic who rediscovered the score:

The return of I Fagiolini

NOTE: This post was originally posted as one of a daily series highlighting interesting singing from around the web


For the rest of this series I’ll be publishing an hour later, at 10am GMT on each day of Advent. I am posting a video each day of a piece which, in my opinion, celebrates the best of music made by the human voice – with the occasional quirky video thrown in for good measure! Today is the beginning of the third week, and you can catch up with the full Choral Christmas here.


Traditional Zulu chant, performed by I Fagiolini

Back on the first day of Advent, and the first day of this series, I promised a return visit from the quite magnificent I Fagiolini, and here it is. This is a recording from the 2002 Ambronay European Baroque Academy which takes place annualy in Ambronay Abbey. There are photos of what looks like a magnificent building, here (opens in new window/tab).

This performance makes me cry. Every, every time. Which is absurd when you think that it was only very recently that I listened carefully enough to realise there are passages of English to be heard. There are still sections where I have no idea what the words say, or what the intended sentiment is.

In the absence of a shared understanding, we are free create our own. This can be a wonderful thing, and I know exactly what this piece means to me. It’s thrilling that my meaning resonates closely with the words you may pick out from the one minute mark about ‘this winding road… no matter what it takes this road will take me home.’

There is no information on YouTube as to what this piece is, and I think I detected at least three languages in the performance.  Posting this entry up, I tried to find more information and I suspect a recording of this work can be found on the album Simunye, and that this is the cover blurb:

Trad. Zulu arr. Dlamini (b.1965) – Kwa Zulu senzeni? (Kwa Zulu, what’s our crime?)

When we were preparing for the exchange project, I Fagiolini asked whether the SDASA Chorale knew of any traditional African chant which could be compared with Gregorian chant. Mokale immediately thought of Zulu amahubo music, and played us an example which had been recorded by the revered Princess Magogo (mother of Chief Buthelezi) in the 1970s. I Fagiolini was fascinated by the recording and Bheka decided to make an arrangement of the chant that could be sung by both groups.

Bheka says: “That tape took me back home and reminded me of the olden days, those terrible days, which saw the destruction of the Zulu nation.” It is indeed about the destruction of Shaka’s nation that Princess Magogo was singing, and so I asked Bheka why he wanted to sing the song with a group of English men and women, descendents of an empire that played such an active role in that process. “They liked the song,” he replied, “and I thought that it would be nice to sing it together; it would show unity. We can all share our fruit of life.”

If that’s not a sentiment appropriate for Christmas and Advent, I don’t know what is.

How Spem in Alium came to exist – supreme music of power and politics

It’s a precious thing to hear a piece of music which never leaves you. To be absolutely confident that you know and may never forget every twist of the soundscape. For me there is only one work that has so comprehensively captured my soul, and burnt itself in to my memory. It goes by the title Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui Prater In Te Deus Israel – I have never placed my hope in any other but you God of Israel. More digestibly it is simply Spem in Alium.

Hearing that piece for the first time at the BBC Proms of 2005 ignited a musical love affair with the composer Thomas Tallis, that has stayed with me ever since. This coming week, BBC Radio 3 profile Thomas Tallis as their Composer Of The Week (thank you Scott). No doubt they will tell the story of Tallis’s masterpiece, Spem in Alium.

As direct historical records regarding Tallis are so sketchy, we often have to interpret and extrapolate from circumstantial evidence. Here, for what it’s worth, is my take on how Spem in Alium came in to being. My puny efforts at the British Library notwithstanding, Radio 3’s take will no doubt be better researched! Do have a listen.

The world around Tallis

The 16th century transformed the face of our planet, with repercussions still visible today.

As religious wars scorched continents, so too a fire of Renaissance arts and culture blazed out of Italy. Rome was devising a new “Gregorian” calendar – to all intents and purposes the calendar we use today. Time itself was changing, and the new calendar quickly spread its wings across Europe and beyond.

Burgeoning sea travel and the rapid expansion of trading markets saw many things spread faster and wider than they ever had before. Everything from the new calendar, to Smallpox. National boundaries were ever more hotly defended even as their lines, their power, and their meaning, were disintegrating.