The BBC Proms are an eight-week series of music concerts in London that go back to the 19th century when promenade concerts for a strolling outdoor audience were popular. In 1895, the aim was to introduce a wider public to classical music. Nowadays, the Proms are mostly known for the Last Night of the Proms concert in September, which is lighter, carnivalesque, and very different from the other concerts of the festival.
Albert Hall has over 5’000 seats and even features a Royal box. The real promenaders however, the prommers, attend the concerts in the standing arena. As these inexpensive tickets (£6) are limited in number, there is a very British queuing system: you get a queue number early in the day and return in the evening to take your place in the queue and chitchat. The atmosphere is informal without dress code, and many come in T-shirts. The audience is nevertheless very knowledgeable.
I was surprised how many elderly prommers are willing to stand – they are clearly enthusiasts. I was also surprised to get a silver-haired gentleman’s elbow in my ribs on entering the arena – the spots in the first row are popular. Many of these first-row premiers see all the season’s concert and know each other well.
If you are late to get your queue number you might not get into the hall, as it happened to us for Beethoven’s 7th played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with their new elected conductor Kirill Petrenko. Luckily tough, all BBC Proms concerts are live broadcasted on BBC 3 radio (the BBC even provides binaural headphone mixes for some of the concerts).
BBC Proms performances we were indeed able to see and hear were Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto virtuosly played by pianist Yuja Wang and the Berliners. The acoustics in the large round hall are notoriously difficult and made some piano parts hard to grasp. We also heard Mahler’s Third Symphony and Shostakovitch’s Fourth played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons, complemented by Bernstein. Further concerts were Britten’s War Requiem, Berlioz by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and the Tallis Scholars singing works spanning 1’000 years of music. Last but not least, there was also a Tango night.