Friday, August 19, 2011


Last week I went to four Proms over the course of seven days. For those that don't know, the Proms are a series of concerts that happen every summer at the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington. They are truly epic with a concert happening every night, sometimes twice an evening and with afternoon concerts on Saturdays. Extraordinary music, extraordinary performances, and the chance to see people you wouldn't normally be able to for a totally reasonable price. (I can't tell you how bummed I am that I missed Steve Reich. Man.) The concerts are broadcast on BBC radio 3 and some of them are filmed for television as well.

Royal Albert Hall is a giant tube of a building, and for the proms the centre circle of seats are taken out and the resulting flat floor space becomes the arena for standing room tickets that you queue up for and then pay £5 for on the day. The proms are named after the standing promenaders that fill up the arena. (Pronunciation Tip: promenAHders not promenAYders)

Last Thursday Meredith played her first ever prom as part of one of her trials. Being the good and dutiful friend that I am, I agreed to come listen and stand for the duration of the concert. I arrived about half an hour before the concert, jumped into the little queue, paid my £5, wandered past a cellist warming up on the staircase ("Nowhere else to sit!")  and then wandered back and forth trying to find the door to the hall (I expected it would be propped open, it wasn't. I felt more than a little stupid when I eventually figured out that just because the doors were closed, that didn't mean that they were locked...), up another small set of stairs and ta-dah! The arena.

Royal Albert Hall is a little overpowering. Ornate and large and filled with people. I hunkered down in my chosen floor spot, but it wasn't long before I realised that I knew the man over there to the left with the little round glasses. Peter conducted the baroque ensemble that I performed with a bit last year and he is a lovely guy. He has a season ticket to the proms and shows up nearly every night over the summer.

Season ticket holders have their own queue and have a guaranteed spot in the arcade as long as they show up at least 20 minutes before the show begins. This is significant when the lines are super long and wrap around the entire block since only about 1,000 people can fit in the arcade. (Or 700? I've heard conflicting accounts of the capacity.) Season ticket holders, it turns out, are their own special breed.

When I went to Peabody my favourite game to play during audition week was, "guess the instrument." It worked best when they weren't carrying their instrument and you had to guess entirely based on looks and how they moved. (Best. Game. EVER.) Sometimes specific instruments were difficult to pick out (harp, flute, and singer have only subtle differences) but I had a 100% success rate with guessing the genre. Jazzers look significantly different to orchestral musicians, and early music geeks have distinctive hair. (I'm so not even kidding about that.) My point with all of this is that Peter claims you can pick out Season Ticket holders. (More or less, some of them are tough if they work in offices and have to wear a suit.) That being said, if the fellow in question has a lengthy beard and is wearing a cycling outfit: that's a season ticket holder.

Being new to this whole environment (Thursday was my second Prom ever, I went to one last year but that is it.) I asked Peter to explain some of the Prommer culture. There's a passel of hardcore prommers who all have season tickets. They stand up at the front, stage left. At the end of the interval they stand up and, with their chests puffed up tio the sky, chant in awkward and weirdly scanning unison: "Arena. to. audience: promenaders. will be. collecting. for. musical. charities. after. the. concert. So far. you have. donAted. over. (Wednesday it was £40,000) pounds.  Thank you."

There are weird little regulars' tics as well:

You can get season tickets or day tickets to stand up at the top of the hall in the gallery as well as in the arena, ("Why would you do that? You can't hear anything from up there!") and whenever the lid of a piano is opened, say for a piano concerto, then the arena hollers, "heave!" and the gallery responds back, "ho!"

If the concertmaster then gets an A from the piano instead of from he oboist- then everyone applauds.

There was, for many many years, a fountain in the middle of the arena. This fountain has been removed this year and there are some people who are not pleased. These people also happen to be season ticket holders of good standing and lengthy service, so they've started a petition. Some even wear T-shirts with the fountain printed on them. Peter, being the crotchety old man he's not old enough to be yet, is stubbornly against signing the petition.

As Peter was explaining the ins and outs of the Proms, another season ticket holder joined in our conversation. Alex is a Classicist. His PhD has something to do with the god Aries and associated war gods. Alex is nocturnal and wakes up in time to come to the concerts, so he talks about getting lunch after the show.

On Wednesday the London Philharmonia was playing, so I went to that as well because I don't pass up opportunities to see Gwen perform. I had been having a lovely picnic with friends in Kensington Gardens (I learned how to bowl for cricket!) and then leisurely walked over to the hall intending to check out what the programme was going to be. Except the line was unexpectedly long and an hour and a half before the concert already went around two corners and halfway up the third side of the block. Did I mention it was raining and I didn't have an umbrella? I was very wet when I made it in, but I still made it.

My first summer in Britain I had the opportunity to play a Handel Opera in a residency programme out in  the countryside somewhere. It was delightful and a powerful learning experience; being completely immersed in baroque recitative meant that for the first time I understood it, and how to play it and how the form of the music seriously affected how the bow needed to be used and where the emphasis of the phrases were and all that. It was fabulous and I got it.

This week of concert going has resulted in a similar realisation- as soon as the Philharmonia started playing the penny dropped- orchestras sound different to each other. I mean, I knew that, but I didn't GET it before that concert started. The basses are amazing and there were all these textures that I could pick out and hear and they were smiling and in to it and it was totally delightful in a way that was unique to that week.

So that's what I've been up to.

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