Of Proms and Promming

This time last year I wrote a piece for this blog arguing for a change of venue for the Proms, London’s two-month summer classical music festival. We’re a fortnight into the current season, and I have already attended two Prom concerts, courtesy of Bachtrack. One was at Cadogan Hall, a lovely venue just off Sloane Square, with comfy seats, a great view of the stage wherever you sit, a fine acoustic (it’s a converted church), and a champagne bar. Here I heard the young harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani give an exquisite and at times idiosyncratic performance of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations (read my review for Bachtrack here). And then, last Friday, I attended the Proms ‘proper’, if you will, for a lively evening of Franco-Hispanic music by Debussy, Ravel and de Falla: from Bach’s Baroque world in microcosm to a sweeping panorama of Spain evoked in lively and atmospheric orchestral music.

As a child and teenager, I used to go to the Proms every year with my parents, who would pour over the programme as soon as it was published (this, of course, many years pre-internet, and the Proms booklet would be for sale in WH Smith). There wasn’t such competition for tickets then, although tickets for the First and Last nights were allocated by ballot. I heard a wide variety of music, and sometimes we would sit in the choir stalls behind the stage, affording one a wonderful view of the orchestra at work. About 10 years ago, I heard Lang Lang, playing Tchaikovsky, before he shot to superstar status, and before that Evgeny Kissin. The last time I was at the Proms, before last Friday, we sat high up in the vertiginous upper circle, where we sweltered, and from where Stephen Hough, the soloist, was but a speck on the stage, and Rach Three was rather lost in the vastness of the Albert Hall. In the interval we drank warm white wine out of plastic glasses and had to sit on the stairs near the ladies’ loo. Not especially enjoyable. The whole experience was rather tiring, fraught and effortful. After that, I decided I would avoid the Proms.

The Proms have not always been resident at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert series was pioneered by a Mr Robert Newman, and its first home was the Queen’s Hall. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the BBC Proms Archive site reveals some interesting programmes, cram full with a huge variety of music in one single concert), and often included unscheduled musical offerings. For example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler liked to warm up both himself and the audience with an unprogrammed “appetiser” such as his own ‘Praeludium’. Robert Newman conceived the Proms to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical music concerts, enticing them with the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. From the earliest days, promenading was permitted, as was eating and drinking. Smoking was also allowed, though patrons were requested “not to strike matches between movements or during quiet passages”. After Newman’s sudden death in 1926, Henry Wood took over the directorship of the concert series. The Proms took up residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 after the destruction of Queen’s Hall, though they moved again during the war to Bedford Corn Exchange, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941, and remained at this venue until the end of the war.

What is so wonderful about the Proms is that the original spirit in which they were conceived continues today. Even as we approached the hall last Friday (I went with a friend who had never been to a Prom before), there was a buzz of excited expectancy amongst the people milling around the hall, queuing to “promenade” (pay a fiver and stand in the arena, or up in the gods), or for returns at the box office. It was a fine summer evening, the Albert Memorial gleamed in the setting sun, the park was still full of people enjoying the last warmth of the day, lovers strolling hand in hand, children running across the grass, a patient queue at the bus stop.

After picking up the tickets at the Press Office, we had a drink in the bar near door 9 and at the appointed hour drifted into the hall where we had excellent seats in the circle. Inside, the hall vibrated with the hum of 5000 people in that special state of eager expectation a few minutes ahead of the start of a concert. The orchestra were taking their places, the ‘prommers’ claiming their ‘pitch’ in the arena. Above the stage, a plush red and gold velvet swag proclaimed that these were the ‘BBC Proms’. Then the formalities began, first with the arrival of the assistant leader of the orchestra, then the leader, and finally the ‘master of ceremonies’, conductor Juanjo Mena (who takes over as principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in September). With the raise of his baton, the evening’s entertainment was underway.

I am well aware of the limitations of the Albert Hall as a music venue: small scale, chamber and solo recitals are often lost in its vast space, and its dodgy acoustic can give the sense that the music is being heard from a next door room. Even the full-size orchestra last Friday struggled at times to be heard, especially in the quieter passages of the opening piece (Debussy’s ‘Gigues’ from his Images for orchestra), but at other times, the woodwind and brass sections (who were particularly fine throughout the concert) sang through perfectly, clear, bright, melodious and mellow, while the strings were silky and translucent.

(c) BBC Proms

“Where are they off to?” my friend asked after the applause for Ravel’s wonderful Rhapsodie Espagnole and the orchestra started to drift off the stage. I pointed out it was the interval and therefore time for another glass of perfectly chilled rosé in the bar. Nick expressed his delight at being there, spoke intelligently about what he had heard and what we would hear in the second half. He seemed intrigued by the idea that I could have come to any Prom I care to, courtesy of Bachtrack. Around us people chatted and laughed; the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. Afterwards, walking back to the tube station along the tunnel at South Ken, we overhead other people’s responses to what they had heard (always useful grist to the reviewer’s mill!). We talked all the way home on the train and agreed that we’d had a great night out.

And this, to me, is what the Proms is all about. Too often people are put off attending classical music because they perceive it as stuffy, elitist and populated by (largely) snooty octogenarians who demand hushed reverence. The Wigmore audience is perhaps the very worst example of this, although it doesn’t bother me any more, and without those people the Wigmore probably wouldn’t exist. But at the Proms, everyone is welcome. In recent years, the programmes have definitely become more “populist”, with themed concerts such as a Dr Who Prom, and, this year, a Human Planet prom and forthcoming Horrible Histories and Spaghetti Western proms. Music snobs and critics may throw their hands up at this, but I think these concerts are a great way of introducing classical music to people who may have no previous knowledge or experience of it. The atmosphere inside the Albert Hall is very friendly and good-natured, with its special Prom traditions: the Prommers always yell “heave-ho!” as the piano lid is raised, for example. And if people applaud during movements, so what? To me, it’s a spontaneous, instant response to something they have enjoyed, and should not be sneered at as ignorance of “concert etiquette”. (The habit of not applauding between movements had not existed before the twentieth century.) So, hip hip hooray for the Proms and all they stand for, and long may they continue. You can be guaranteed a huge variety of music, from new commissions to old favourites, works on a vast scale (Havergal Brian’s monumental Gothic Symphony), to intimate chamber music and solo miniatures.

I am back at the Proms towards the end of August for a late-night recital of Liszt, including the beautiful Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, performed by Marc-André Hamelin. I am not sure how Liszt’s solo piano works will fare in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, but I have little doubt that this is the kind of venue, and concert experience, of which Liszt himself would have thoroughly approved.

For more information about the Proms click here

Bachtrack.com – international concert listings site


  1. I’ve just been listening to the repeat of the Prom which included the Strauss Four Last Songs, and Martin Handley’s comments when he deplored the ‘clapping within nanoseconds ‘ of the end of such a piece, have been edited out.
    Fortunately, some of us are still allowed our opinions.

  2. I’m inclined to agree with Jo about not applauding between movements. Even if Alex Ross says it shows your appreciation, I tell the little ones that you applaud when the conductor turns and bows, or when the soloist makes it clear that it has finished. Martin Handley commented last night, on the ‘applause within nanoseconds’, of the end of Im Abendrot, last night. It isn’t necessary to demonstrate that you know the work well enough to clap at the last note. But then again, I’m old and grumpy.
    I went to a concert once, conducted by Harry Blech, in which he played an unfamiliar modern work, and told the audience, ‘ You won’t know it, but I’ll tell you when to clap !’

    • The friend who came to the Proms with me the other week said “I’ll clap when you do” because he was terrified of doing it at the wrong time! I do get irritated by it, as it can interrupt the flow of the music and, I suspect, sometimes distract the performers. If you applaud at the wrong time at the Wigmore, you are likely to be lynched, but people seem more relaxed about it at the Proms. Sometimes it’s helpful if the performers actually request no applause until the interval – as Maria Joao Pires and friends did at a concert I attended a couple of years ago. It gave a nice flow and structure to the concert.

      At Pollini’s Beethoven recital back in February, the Festival Hall was overrun with Poliini ‘Tifosi’ (noisy fans) who whooped, cheered and stamped at the end – which was a bit much really for us reserved English concert-goers!

  3. There are 2 important reasons for the Concert Etiquette of not applauding between movements of a larger work:
    1 in case the composer intends an “attacca” moving swiftly into the next movement;
    2 to allow the performers a moment’s quiet preparation for the next movement so that they can mentally adjust to chnages of mood / tempi / key, etc.

  4. So much depends on where you sit. I’ve never fancied what I presume to be the discomfort of being a Prommer (I tried being a groundling at the Globe once and didn’t quite take to it), but then if you pay for the next cheapest tickets you end up in the gods and get the most awful sonic experience. So my current policy is to go to a very small number of Proms (if any) and get a seat in the stalls (or even in the choir if it’s a purely orchestral concert). I’m only going to one this year – tomorrow night’s – Brahms 2, Four Last Songs, Robin Holloway premiere. I envy you seeing MAH play Liszt. If he’s anywhere near as good as he was at the Festival Hall earlier in the year, you’re in for a treat. I gather his new Liszt CD is meant to be something special too.

    • Like you, I’ve decided to go to a handful of Proms only – actually, I wasn’t going to go to any as previous recent experiences have been less than enjoyable. However, it seemed a little churlish, now I am reviewer for Bachtrack, to turn down the offer of some gratis tickets. And, as it turned out, we had a great night out. I’m looking forward to MAH but I fear for the music in that big space…..

  5. Oh dear! Looking ahead at what’s on, the BBC have again ignored the populace and messed around with the last night – no shanties etc.

    Oh well, the last night of the proms will join the formula one on my list of not worth watching…….

  6. It’s interesting what you say about the RAH. I’ve only been to one Prom. That was in 2005, when everyone was a bit nervous of travelling on the Underground. We went to the Mahler 3 concert, a one work programme. I loved it, but at times, I had to concentrate hard to hear the music, especially in the quieter parts, as, I suppose, I was some way off. (Like the time I went to a Cup Final at Wembley, far away from the game.)
    The RAH is a great place, an experience, but the acoustics are not brilliant. And my hearing is quite good. The recent previous concerts I had been to were at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, which does tend to spoil you in that regard.
    I do enjoy the music on the radio now, and, whatever the BBC say, it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.

  7. Fascinating, I never knew the Proms had been held at Bedford Corn Exchange! I think I’ve performed more often there than anywhere else. I’ve only performed once at the RAH, and it was a most difficult venue in which to perform, surpassed only by a tiny school library with a low, polystyrene-tiled ceiling. Personally I’m ambivalent about the RAH as a venue; the atmosphere is special but musically-speaking it certainly has its limitations – but then if such an iconic cultural event were to be moved elsewhere, what would the reaction be?

    • I agree about the limitations of RAH – and I can imagine it’s tough on performers. But as a musical experience, we had a great night out, and it was fun to go to a concert with someone who knew nothing about either the venue or the music. I felt I was hearing and seeing everything from a different angle (very beneficial to my reviewing job!).

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