Pints, Plaques and Proms: My musical adventures in London

by Rex Levang, Minnesota Public Radio
July 30, 2014

St. Paul, Minn. — I've always had this ambition of going to the BBC Proms, especially since Classical MPR has a long-standing connection with the Proms. And having a mild obsession with Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, when I saw it was coming to the Proms, I just booked some vacation time and off we went to what would be my first and only time (so far) at the Proms.

Getting to the Proms
We were staying in Bloomsbury, so we took the London Underground's Piccadilly Line down to South Kensington, where the Royal Albert Hall is. We got off at the South Kensington stop and fought our way through the mobs of schoolchildren who had been visiting the various museums that are right around there — the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum chief among them. Eventually we made our way up to the Royal Albert Hall.

Pre-concert discussion
Most Proms are preceded by a discussion called Proms Plus, where they have writers, musicians and other experts come in to talk before the concert. It was a very hot day, so we had time for a pint before the Proms Plus started. Refreshments are very important at the Royal Albert Hall — there are bars and refreshment stands all over the place.

The Proms Plus sessions are held in the Royal College of Music, which is just across a little street, the Prince Consort Road, from the Royal Albert Hall, so we went over there to hear Proms Plus, which is also available online.

The Proms Plus moderator was Sara Mohr-Pietsch, a host on BBC Radio 3 (whose programming is similar to ours on Classical MPR), and the visiting experts were two men named David Nice and Hugo Shirley; they've written on Strauss and opera and so on. They talked for a total of exactly 20 minutes, and then there was a Q&A for 10 minutes. (The Q&A does not make it onto the final version that you can hear online; you just hear the 20-minute conversation.) They had to be done at a certain time so that people could go back to Royal Albert Hall to queue for the standing-room Prommer tickets. Up to 1,400 standing places are available for each Proms concert, and these make attending classical concerts easy and affordable; the Prommer tickets are only £5 each — equivalent to about eight or nine bucks.

We had tickets ahead of time, so we were able to take our time getting settled before the show.

Inside the Royal Albert Hall
It's very impressive inside the Royal Albert Hall; it's all crimson and gold and ornate, and there's a big banner for the BBC Proms. The interior is a big, elliptical space, and they've fitted up a concert stage at one end. In the middle, in what you might describe as an arena area, is where the Prommers go, and they stand through the performance or else maybe sit on the floor on cushions. And then there's seating around that, including boxes. We were in regular auditorium seating, but we saw people in the boxes with champagne, watching the proceedings.

The Prom itself
The performance of Der Rosenkavalier was very good; this was the performance that had been given at the Glyndebourne Festival, so it was well-rehearsed and the musicians and the performers had lived with the music for some time. Two of the leading singers, however, actually were substitutes who got called in at the last minute, and gave splendid performances. You can listen to the performance I attended by visiting this BBC Proms page; the performance remains available for listening for 30 days after the show.

One thing that was a pleasant surprise is how good the acoustics are in the Royal Albert Hall. It's this big, multi-use space, and I was almost prepared for it to be a little echo-y or distant, but in fact, the acoustics were great, probably thanks to a lot of modern-looking things that were hanging from the ceiling, so they've tried to improve the acoustics over the decades!

The balance is great; you can hear the clear diction of the singers. Similarly, the London Philharmonic Orchestra sounded terrific and you can hear all sorts of detail and clarity in the orchestral playing. That was a pleasure.

At one point — I have no idea if this will be audible online or if they've cleaned it up — but someone's mobile phone went off; not loud, but still, you could hear it in that immense space.

For the staging, what they did was to somewhat mimic an opera house by having the orchestra in front, and then behind them, a raised stage area, so it was a semi-staged performance: There was costuming, there were entrances and exits and movements, but the scenery had to be rather minimal — it was mostly suggested by projections or backgrounds, but not full-fledged sets.

Although Der Rosenkavalier is sung in German, there were no super-titles. Since it's somewhat in the round, I can see that having just one place for super-titles wouldn't really work. But I wondered if, all the same, something couldn't have been arranged on multiple screens.

Der Rosenkavalier is an opera in three acts, so there were two intervals. During one of the intervals, we went outdoors and there was a little parking lot, and there were some people tailgating, but they were tailgating from a yellow Rolls-Royce. I didn't take a picture; it would have been very awkward!

The audience
Throughout the performance, the audience were great. You could tell they were interested and excited to be there through the whole thing. From what I hear, that's very characteristic of the Proms.

At the end of the performance, they applauded heartily. What was interesting was there was not a universal standing ovation. I think that's something that we're more familiar with here; maybe it's not something you see as often there.

Other musical discoveries
If you've been to London, you may know about the Blue Plaques scheme. Run by English Heritage, circular Blue Plaques mark the buildings where notable figures of the past lived and worked. So simply by serendipity with visiting this or that neighborhood, I'd run across Blue Plaques showing where famous musicians had lived or spent time, so that was fun. And we went to Abbey Road and saw the famous zebra stripes.

When we went to the Tate Britain, there was a big motorcoach outside liveried "Elgar Coaches" — just a coincidence, I think; I don't think it's anything to do with the composer!

Listen for highlights from the BBC Proms on Classical MPR, airing Sept. 1 to 13, at 11 a.m. and 11 p.m., culminating in the Last Night of the Proms concert on Sept. 13.

This video from BBC Radio 3 demonstrates the depth and breadth of programming at the BBC Proms, featuring Alison Balsom, Laura Mvula, Joshua Bell, Roderick Williams and Sakari Oramo.


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