diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 28, 2015

I'm not quite sure how I'd never been to The Proms before. Indeed it's been a few decades since I was even inside the Royal Albert Hall, such are my inadequate attempts at full cultural integration. But I'd been meaning to go, and my Dad had been suggesting it for years, so when I spotted the 2015 ticket window opening up I sprang to attention.

You have to be quick. I got home from work on the designated day to find various Proms already fully booked, though thankfully not the one I'd set my eye on. Even so it had only a paltry number of tickets left, all with a Restricted View, the upside of which was that they were particularly cheap. £7.50's not bad for a top notch concert, I thought, so I stumped up and waited for my ticket to arrive in the post.

I plumped for a classical dead cert, The Planets by Holst, which I'm pretty sure I was taken to hear at the RAH when I was small. Musically it's got a bit of everything, from fierce to stirring to ethereal drift, plus I knew the suite really well so I'd not get bored. But the Prom also included a couple of pieces that would be more challenging, one a French avant garde number, the other a BBC original commission, making the overall programme more representative of the season as a whole.

The Royal Albert Hall is really big. I know this is fairly obvious, but it pays to go for a walk once round the outside before you go in. All kinds of people will be pouring in, this being the Proms, not just your usual jacketed hoorays and blonde grandmothers. The longest queue is for the five pound Arena Day Tickets, where summer blouses and yellow plimsolls are more than likely to make an appearance. Who else but the BBC could fill this hall nightly across the summer with such a broad cross section of the public?

I was heading for the very back row of the Circle, perched just below the balcony at almost vertigo-inducing heights. Way down below were the serious Prommers, standing, then the stalls, then a double ring of boxes, mostly full, and then us. They hadn't been kidding about the Restricted View. From my seat I could see the second but not the first violins, the brass rather than the woodwind and, so long as the Chinese dad in front of me leaned back, the female conductor. He didn't lean back much.

As the orchestra readied to begin the seats beside me were taken by a courting couple, he an Albert Hall regular, she seemingly a classical virgin. But when the baton was raised she suddenly realised with some horror that the entire auditorium was about to fall silent while she had a bag of crisps balanced on her lap. Her Tyrells Lightly Sea Salted then sat there temptingly but unavailable for the entire first piece, until eventually she could take no more and reached in... crinkle, crinkle, crunch. I hope he dumped her after the performance, but in truth I blame the RAH for selling the irresistibly noisy snack in the first place.

I think it's fair to say that most of the audience hadn't come for the first half selection. Up first were Pierre Boulez's Notations, a selection of five brisk compositions written intermittently over half a century, from 1945's Fantasque to 1997's Strident. It sounded more like the orchestra was having fun than playing a tune, zipping here and there in turbulent motifs, and showcasing various instruments with a flurry. More traditional in format, if not in style, was the première of Luca Francesconi's violin concerto, Duende. As with any concerto this was essentially an opportunity for the soloist to show off, here quivering around the very highest notes on the fingerboard like a demented humming bird, while the orchestra buzzed underneath. Her virtuoso performance earned considerable applause. And then ice creams and more red wine, anyone?

The Planets is Holst's masterwork, not least because not one of the seven movements hits a duff note. They're each based on astrological persona, not astronomical reality, and were composed over a two year period precisely a century ago. The suite begins with Mars and heads in towards the Sun, then returns to Jupiter and departs the solar system. As a kick-off The Bringer of War hit a relentless note, and made clear the huge advantages of listening to a live reverberating orchestra rather than a tinny laptop stream.

Jupiter was the biggest crowd pleaser, its bucolic jollity ideally suited to Last Night of the Proms sensibilities (where I believe it was indeed played in 1997). The ensemble delivered a blisteringly emotional performance, inspiring the audience to break protocol and applaud loudly at the end. But Uranus might just have been my favourite, twisting and cavorting like an outtake from the Sorcerer's Apprentice, and finally giving the organist something to do with a crashing chord right at the end.

Neptune brought the suite to an atmospheric end, the members of the orchestra gradually putting down their instruments so that the Elysian Singers could sing the final haunting notes... until interrupted by the bawling cry of a small child throughout the crucial fade-out sequence. His father eventually dashed with him for the exit, but not before the ethereal effect had been ruined for all of us in the hall and by the thousands listening live on Radio 3. Don't bring your pre-toddler to a Prom - they won't appreciate it, and neither will we.

But as the final applause lifted the roof, the seven year-old boy in the row in front of me beamed with delight. He'd been banging his little fists to Mars, and drifting off gently to Venus, and bobbing slightly from side to side during Jupiter, and had clearly enjoyed an eye-opening first night at the Proms. I hope he comes back. I'm damned glad I did.

To listen to last night's Prom...
» Part 1: Pierre Boulez, Notations 1–4 & 7; Luca Francesconi, Duende – The Dark Notes
» Part 2: Holst, The Planets
» The whole thing: this Friday, 7.30pm, BBC4
» To listen to offline for 30 days: get the new iPlayer Radio app, and download to your phone or tablet

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