The BBC proms is the world’s largest and most refreshingly egalitarian music festival in the world. A series of over ninety world-class concerts are held over eight weeks, mainly at the Royal Albert, Hall in London. Unusually for such a big event, over 500 tickets for Proms concerts are always available on the day. Even if a concert has been ‘Sold out’ for weeks, tickets are available to people who turn up at the Royal Albert Hall and are willing to queue. These tickets cost £5 each and give you access to the arena or the gallery.
If you are in London during the Proms season – which this year ends on 7th September – then I urge you to get to the Royal Albert Hall, just south of Kensington Gardens. Every music lover should experience the Proms at least once. The name Prom refers to the audience historically being able to promenade or walk about during the concert. This is no longer the case and nowadays promming means to stand up whilst watching the concerts.
Saturday was Prom 38, the annual visit of the National Youth Orchestra, conducted by its principal conductor Vasily Petrenko. The main excitement of the evening was to be Beethoven’s popular Symphony No.9 in D minor, ‘Choral’. When I looked on the website it was of course sold out, although that’s a slight misnomer as it was the first free evening Prom ever. Anyway, there were no tickets left – unless you turned up and queued on the day for a promming ticket.
Go early and you should get in
The way promming works is that the tickets are not available to buy in advance, so if you turn up at the Albert Hall x minutes before the concert starts then you have a good chance of getting in. It is the value of x that is the conundrum. If you get in you will either be in the arena, at the bottom of the hall, or the gallery right at the top. In the arena you are supposed to stand. In the gallery you can either stand and lean against the balustrade or sit against the wall, where your ears will be happy, but you won’t get a view of the orchestra.
The concert started at 7.30pm. I arrived at the Royal Albert Hall just after 6.00pm. There are two separate queues depending on whether you want to get into the arena or the gallery. For the arena the entrance is door 11, and the queue starts by the wall that heads down to Prince Consort Road. For the gallery the entrance is Door 10, and the queue wends its way down Bremner Road.
I asked a steward whether there was more chance of getting in if I queued for a particular section.
‘The arena takes more people,’ she said. ‘But is a more popular queue.’
‘How many people usually don’t get in?’
The answer was just what I wanted to hear.
‘Usually everyone gets in. It is only very popular concerts where we have to turn people away.’
I decided to try and get into the gallery. Unfortunately it looked like today’s event was a very popular concert. There was already a long queue, snaking down Bremner Road almost to Queen’s Gate. A good-natured queue, but a long queue nevertheless. I spotted a chap with a Proms programme a few metres from the end who looked like he had been before.
‘Do you think we have a chance of getting in from here?’ I asked.
‘I’ve been when the queue has curled back on itself,’ he said. ‘We should get in.’
Encouraged, I joined the end of the queue. A few more people joined behind me. A steward in a luminous jacket walked past.
‘Will we get in?’ a woman behind me shouted at him. He paused and considered, unwilling to commit himself.
‘I won’t hold you to it,’ she added.
‘You won’t hold me to it?’ he repeated. ‘Then, yes’. He did a calculation involving season ticket holders, queue length and capacity and said: ‘You’re on the cusp.’
He waved his hand between two couples standing a few metres behind me.
‘Around here. On the balance of probability you will get in.’
The woman relaxed. The couple who had been on the won’t-get-in side of his wave sighed.
‘Mind you,’ the steward said to console them, ‘I’ve been working here for 14 years and I’ve been wrong as often as I’ve been right.’ He walked away, adding, ‘I’ll be back in a few minutes to give you my next opinion.’
The queue started moving in fast bursts. I walked along the pavement towards the hall. A beige-suited fellow walked in the opposite direction. As I came to a halt he stopped by me and lent in conspiratorially.
‘I don’t know if it will interest you…’ he said slowly. I wondered what he was going to say. I find a lot of things interesting, so unless it was a long mathematical equation I’d probably find it of reason interest. He didn’t seem to be selling anything, maybe he was going to give me a Beethoven biography.
I have to admit what he did say was a surprise.
‘I don’t know if it will interest you,’ he repeated quietly, ‘But the version of Beethoven’s Ninth that you will hear tonight was actually written by me.’
I wasn’t sure what to say. He looked perfectly sincere as he waited for me to respond.
‘Really?’ I said.
‘Yes, yes. Quite a while ago.’
Smartly dressed and softly spoken he walked on. I wasn’t aware that there was an authorship debate concerning Beethoven’s Ninth, but what if Ludwig Van has been riding on this fellow’s genius? I considered for a moment then turned to see how other people were reacting to his news. If it was true it shatters musical history. But when I looked round he had disappeared.
Was he a performance artist? Was he deluded? Or did he really write Beethoven’s Ninth? The Symphony is supposed to have first appeared in 1824. Assuming this fellow was ten when he wrote it, then he would be getting close to his 200th birthday. He was elderly, but he didn’t look 200.
In another burst of activity the queue moved several metres forward. I walked past an empty bottle of Cava, which shows the way to do this Proms queuing malarky. Come early and bring a bottle of wine.
I walked over the road towards the Albert Hall – we were getting close. The queue entered between two temporary green walls. There were maybe thirty people in front of me… I moved on and was almost at the door. To be refused entry so close would be rather annoying.
A few metres further. I was on the step. The queue paused again.
Then a woman in a ticket booth to the right of the door handed me a ticket and I was in! The people behind made it as well.
Up to the gallery
I climbed the not-unnoticeable number of stairs to the gallery. People were sitting against the wall at the rear of the gallery and all the spaces next to the first few balustrades were taken. I walked clockwise around the huge auditorium, looking down over the elegant burgundy seats. Past the BBC interview spot and onwards almost to the organ itself, lit in complementary blue and orange. Eventually I found a space to lean, right above the xylophones.
I glanced at the programme, listening to the hum of people chatting expectantly. On the menu was Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Reason, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Frieze and then Beethoven’s Ninth. Or that fellow outside’s Ninth. It must be painful if you are ripped off by a famous musician, like Julian Craster in The Red Shoes. I should have told him that ‘it is much more disheartening to have to steal than to be stolen from.’
Before the interval the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain gave us the first two pieces of the night. The Irish Youth Chamber Choir and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain provided the singers of Walt Whitman’s searching poetry for Vaughan Williams’ 1904 choral work.
‘I know it not, O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is a blank before us,
All waits, undreamed of, in that region, that inaccessible land.’
Whitman’s short examination of death admits the uncertainty we feel, but the trombones going full tilt at the climaxes suggest the soul’s survival. Richly sung over the hypnotic music, it was an entrancing start to the evening.
Next we heard Mark-Anthony Turnages’s 2012 Frieze, which is named after the Beethoven Frieze by Gustaf Klimt, itself inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth. Turnage opens with a quotation from the symphony and gives us a piece that is dramatic and suspenseful, putting put faith in the xylophones, which soared over the other instruments. They deserved their applause at the end when Turnage also came on stage to take a bow.
In the interval the hard-core promenaders shouted in unison about the £30,000 they had already collected for various charities. Then we were onto the main event. Great applause greeted the orchestra and Vasily Petrenko, and the early strains of Beethoven’s Ninth filled the Hall. Originally a commission for the Royal Philharmonic Society for which Beethoven received £50, the audience was absorbed by the score that had taken at least 12 years to complete. Moving from the first movement’s dark Allegro through the Adagio’s variations the solo bass sang
‘O friends, no more of these sounds!’
and the lyrics of Schiller’s Ode to Joy rang out.
If you want to see a concert at the BBC Proms then get to the Royal Albert Hall early and ask a steward which queue to join. As an example of the time to allow, I was an hour and half early and managed to get in. Click below to find out what is on and have fun!