How to put on a Prom

What goes into staging the world's most ambitious concert season? Michael Church goes behind the scenes to meet the men and women who make it all happen

It's eight in the morning, and the Royal Albert Hall has already been awake for an hour. Andras Schiff's customised Bösendorfer sits on stage like a thoroughbred attended by its limpet-like Italian minders, with Gran polishing it obsessively while Rocco does the tuning and voicing.

What is Rocco's aim? "To soften it." Despite the huge space it must fill? "Si, this is for Mozart. Don't worry, the sound will travel." While Rocco tunes imperturbably, a waiter crashingly dumps crates of glasses, and a Somali cleaner gently sings as she goes from box to box. In the empty hall, you hear everything.

The bright-eyed young concert-manager checks his timings - how many seconds to allow for the entry of the conductor, how many seconds for his applause - while Helen Burridge, responsible for the smooth running of the Proms' complex machine, spots a small but significant problem. Reflected light from the gleaming lid that Gran is polishing will dazzle people sitting in the choir seats, and the Proms' matt Steinway lids won't fit the Bösendorfer. Either Gran's work must be dulled, or those seats must be taken off sale.

At 10am, the PA booms: "For the next three hours, Mr Schiff will rehearse. Please clear the auditorium, and maintain exceptional silence." The second of today's Proms will indeed be exceptional: a solo piano recital from the stage - as opposed to from a platform in the middle of the arena - is almost unheard of, and Schiff is the most fastidious pianist in the world. Hearing him practise is a revelation: a constant stream of melody, moving from piece to piece without missing a beat, weighing every phrase for perfect expressiveness.

Outside in the sound trailer, with Schiff playing on the monitor, Wendy Harris is working on the mix. "The challenge," she says, "is to make his recital sound intimate, yet also give a sense of being at a Prom." How can she do that? "That's my secret!" And she shows how, by adjusting the balance of the mics, she can change the hall's acoustic shape.

Lurking in the green room is Steinway's John Anstey, waiting to tune the orchestral piano for the early concert, and nursing a heretical thought: "The radio audience hears fine, but what about the people in the hall? With that dense mass of orchestral sound for the piano to cut through, I always feel a little amplification wouldn't go amiss. The poor pianist has learnt all those notes, and where are they going? For pop concerts, the piano is always miked."

Relaxing from his labours of preparation, Schiff admits the mismatch between the scale of the space inside the hall and the intimacy of the music, "but the power of Mozart is spiritual. There's nothing small about the Rondo in A Minor, even though there are very few notes."

And he justifies taking his personal piano all over the world: "It's like a traveller taking his own bed and pillows." He's also cross about the ubiquity of Steinways: "Why do people assume that the same instrument must be right for everything from Stravinsky to Scarlatti?" Horses for courses, and Bösendorfers for Mozart. "My piano may be 40 years old, but it has a wonderfully singing tone."

Meanwhile, they're laying out the stage for the afternoon's rehearsal: with the lighting people abseiling upwards, it temporarily becomes a hard-hat area. Helping to direct operations is the technical manager Caroline Place, a dreadlocked, ring-lipped, very serious electronics graduate who tumbled into this game by accident, and now can't wait to join the abseilers.

"You have to build up to it, gradually increasing your height," she says. "I'm scared of ladders, but this is pure thrill." Her boss Jacqui Kelly adds: "I trust rock in a way I don't trust man-made things. When I go up there, I think, 'Now, did he go for a pint at lunchtime, before he welded this?'"

Polishing the conductor's podium, Kelly says, is the bane of her life - and she occasionally gets tired of being recognised in the street as "the lady who gives the flowers on television" - but basically she thinks she has the best job in town. She likes the unexpected challenges it presents, like the day a sweating Leonard Slatkin embraced a sweating soprano in a pink gown after a triumphant performance, and pink came off all over his white suit. "I remembered my Scottish grandmother's cure, which was to rub it with milk immediately.

"I've spray-painted soloists' yellow trainers because they've forgotten their shoes, and stitched mezzos into dresses because they'd overdone the cream cakes." Her recurring nightmare is that the pond in the centre of the arena springs a leak, and the prommers are paddling.

Last year's Last Night was preceded by a real nightmare, when a bomb threat was received at 2pm. "I was the person running around with the police asking, 'Can you tell us if you've got a bomb?'" Kelly recalls ruefully. "I said, 'How do I recognise it? Presumably it's not a round thing with a fuse coming out and an alarm clock and the word bomb written on it?' And they said no, it could be the size of a cigarette packet. And I'm thinking, 'We've got the whole hall, and I'm looking for a cigarette packet.'"

Between 2pm and 7pm, she and her team divided the hall into separate areas and went through it locker by locker, drawer by drawer. "That was quite a nerve-racker - our biggest event, the one everybody knows the Albert Hall for, and we were in real danger of losing it." They were allowed back in just 40 minutes before start time, but miraculously they got the performers and public in place. In these jittery times, baggage searches are becoming the norm: "We're an iconic thing, up there in the public eye, so we have to expect that."

Kelly says she and colleagues have developed a "Paddington Bear stare" to signal their disapproval of mobile-phone offenders and, it is hoped, to silence them. Similar disciplinary matters concern front-of-house manager Julia Robinson, who observes, choosing her words carefully, that "there are a lot of strong characters among the promenaders" - like the man in the red suit who loudly ticked off Pierre-Laurent Aimard for playing a concerto too slowly last month.

"We also have to keep an eye on the inflatable Promosaurus in the pond; check it's happy, check it's still there..." It might get stolen? "You never know."

Outside, the prommers' queue is lengthening. First in line, immersed in her book, is gardener Lesley Wasley, who has been there since 10am as usual. Her friend Barbara admits to backsliding: "As it was raining, I thought I'd leave it till early afternoon."

Meanwhile, the merchandise manager Daryl Bennett gets the shops ready: Proms T-shirts and mugs are this year's best-sellers, with jigsaws and fridge magnets coming up strongly. Up in his eyrie, the Royal Albert Hall chief executive David Elliott says he adores the Proms, but wishes the abstemious regulars would spend a bit more at the bar.

In the auditorium, things are starting to hot up. Shrugging off the irritant of the day - an article laboriously regurgitating the standard gripe about Last Night "jingoism" - Nicholas Kenyon nips on stage to thank Paul Daniel and the City of London Sinfonia for stepping in at short notice to replace an American band grounded by airline chaos. "Thank you all very much," he beams. "This is what the Proms are all about - carrying on and doing it."

As the wind players whip through Dumbarton Oaks, a lady violinist expresses the hope that the ensemble's excellence will be recognised and that next year they will get a date of their own - they're tired of seeing foreign bands scoop the pool. Then on comes Ian Bostridge, singing with his hands in his pockets, and looking so willowy you'd think a breath could blow him away, yet his voice cuts like a clarion through the cavernous expanse. "I love singing here," he says afterwards. "Partly for the size of the audience, and partly for the kind of audience it is."

Sitting in on the BBC's running-order meeting at six, I realise what a fine-tuned exercise a Prom is. I spend the last 20 minutes before kick-off in the "bull run" via which everyone is funnelled on stage, where the tension - part nerves, part excitement - is palpable. "It feels like organising a birthday party," says concert manager Susanne Weber. "You make a really fancy cake, you're scared it's going to burn, and until everyone's had a piece and said 'yum', you're on edge."

When Daniel and company have acquitted themselves with honour, it's time for the big event: a lone pianist, playing intimate Mozart for an audience of thousands, at a time when most concert halls have shut up shop. And it's magnificent: Schiff is on top form, so is the Bösendorfer, and so is the audience, who can hardly drag themselves away when it's over.

BBC Proms, to 9 September (020-7589 8212;

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory