Swaying is tolerated. Talking is not. And don't think about waving a flag ...
Eye witness: First Night of the Proms
Sunday 20 July 2003
No talking is allowed. No whispering, no muttering, no rustling of wrappers, no inappropriate movement and certainly no dancing. What matters as we stand shoulder to shoulder, back to sweaty back, in the arena at the Royal Albert is the music. The people around me, mostly men, have stood in line in the sunshine for hours to be within a bow's throw of the first violin, on the First Night of the Proms.
Never mind the flag-waving of the Last Night, this is a night for serious musos: Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky rather than Rule Britannia.
Flamboyant Prommers sway a little and bob in time - as anyone would who had been standing this long - but others stare motionless at the stage like chess masters absorbed in the battle. They exhale and splutter as the first movement ends and the pianist Lang Lang wipes his face with a white towel, but then the Prommers fall absolutely silent again. The creak of shoe leather rises up to the dome of the newly and gloriously restored hall.
Classical music audiences are always fiercely quiet but here we are unusually close to each other - closer than body odour makes comfortable - and the devotion to silence is religious, fanatical. As is the hierarchy. The serious Prommers at the very front demand an assurance "written in blood" that our photographer will go back to his proper place.
Even the sudden bursts of chanting between performances are scripted.
"Arena to Stephanie," a group calls to a Radio 3 presenter on the balcony. "Happy New Year!" It is, you see, the beginning of a new prom season. "Arena to Gallery," they have been known to shout to others high in the roof, "Jump!" When the stage hands lift the lid of the piano there is a ritualised call and response of "Heave!" from the arena and "Ho!" from above.
The majority of the audience are white and appear middle-class, but Henry Wood's original intention that the working man should be able to hear fine music at the end of his day is still honoured: tickets for the arena are £4, if you are prepared to queue.
It is hard to imagine how Kevin and Matthew might have become friends other than meeting every year in the queue. Matthew, a 17-year-old music student from Birmingham, arrived at the hall at just before 10 in the morning. There was nobody about so he left his bag and a note at the appointed place and went off for a viola lesson. When he got back the bag was being guarded by Kevin, a 55-year-old from Milton Keynes who drives a seven-and-a-half ton truck for a living.
"If someone pushes in the stewards will deal with them," said this slight, diffident music-lover. "Or we will." He does not play an instrument. Asked for his favourite moment in more than a decade of Prom-going he gave his young friend an admiring smile. "Mahler's Eighth Symphony last year." Matthew was on stage that night with the National Youth Orchestra. He laughed and blushed. "You don't have to say that!"
A girl with rainbow feathers in her hair read Harry Potter aloud while a precocious boy slashed demons on a laptop computer. The sustenance of choice in the queue was a picnic from a Marks & Spencer bag. Barbara, 73, had been to every Prom season since 1947 except one, the year her husband died. "I just love coming," she said. "It is like meeting your family." Members of the orchestra were smoking roll-ups in the sun a few feet away. "I get icy feelings all down my back when the big chorus gets going."
Way up in the gallery during the concert people lay on the marbled floor or sat cross-legged and barefoot as the music drifted up. A woman read with her back to a pillar and her recumbent partner appeared to be asleep but for his hands. One caressed her ankle, the other moved as though playing the piano way down on the stage below.
It was hot and airless back down in the arena but the power of the orchestra and chorus was hugely impressive close up. Afterwards Matthew the student was pale but elated. "Where else can you stand this close to the best musicians in the world and watch them play?"
Review: A weak dose of Stalinist medicine
By Anna Picard, Classical Music Critic
A weak opening to the world's greatest orchestral festival has become something of a tradition at the Royal Albert Hall.
In a First Night devoted to state-sponsored kitsch (Shostakovich's Festive Overture) and a second-rate film-score (Prokofiev's music for Eisenstein's epic Ivan the Terrible), it fell to Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto to be the spoonful of Tsarist sugar to Auntie's Stalinist medicine at the Proms.
Small wonder that it was the 21-year-old Chinese-American pianist Lang Lang who emerged as the populist hero, not Prokofiev's despot.
But a little of what you fancy always does you good.
After last year's bizarre cocktail of biblical panto and pseudo-Spanish froth, an all-Russian First Night seemed positively cohesive. But all three are more remarkable for missed opportunities than creative milestones.
The same could be said of the performance. How much of this was down to the obvious froideur between the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their Chief Conductor, Leonard Slatkin, is hard to say. With a work-to-rule horn section in front of him, Slatkin's gestures seemed less organic than ever.
Only tonight, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales's performance of Tippett's King Priam, will the serious music-making start.
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