There are three things that signal the arrival of summer in London. (Excluding “heatwaves,” temperatures over 30C to you and I). They are, Wimbledon fortnight (tennis – just in case you were wondering), cricket and The BBC Proms.
The Proms have been a cultural landmark in the capital since they were founded by one of classical music’s more forward-thinking conductor/impresarios, Sir Henry Wood in 1895.
Prom is short for Promenade concert. The term was coined for the concerts given in London’s Pleasure Gardens where the audience was free to stroll around, take in the air (which can’t have been that fragrant in those days), and listen to the music. Although there’s no walking around during The Proms these days, all the seats in the Royal Albert Hall’s stalls are removed so people pay £5 and stand.
That’s right – £5. I’ve scratched my head on many occasions trying to figure out if there’s any other ticket that’s better value for money in London for any other live performance in London, and after a lot of scratching, have come to the conclusion that there isn’t.
And when you consider that this year there are over 70 concerts (the flag-waving exuberance is only found on the Last Night) over an eight week period, showcasing the very best orchestras, soloists and conductors that are before the public today, the BBC Proms’ claim that it is the ‘biggest music festival in the world’ is no overstatement – it’s the truth.
One of the biggest draws at this year’s Proms is a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle to celebrate the bicentenary of the German composer’s birth. Completed in 1876, this monster-operatic work consists of four operas, given over the space of a week (all the performers need a day off in between to lie down in a darkened room).
It contains roughly 16-17 hours of music in total. The orchestra is huge, and the singers not only need to possess superhuman stamina, but need to have lungs of steel as well.
It’s a mammoth undertaking for performers and audiences alike. I was there for the first opera, or as Wagner called it the ‘preliminary evening,’ entitled Das Rheingold (or in English The Rheingold). On the surface it’s a tale about gods, dwarves, mermaids – well, Rhinemaidens, and it’s derived from Norse mythology. At its heart lies the notion of power, and the corruption of power.
World-famous Wagnerian conductor Daniel Barenboim was at the helm, with the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra providing an evening of musical wonder. The singers all excelled too, and the 4,000 of us who were in the audience did a mighty fine job of not passing out, as Monday was the hottest day of the year and there’s no air-con.
Shorts, vests and a supply of water are necessary accessories, but despite all that, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I had to skip the two middle operas, but I’m back for the final instalment on Sunday, Götterdämmerung, or The Twilight of the Gods, and I can’t wait – even if it does last six hours!
But please don’t be scared off, as most Proms only last a couple of hours, and there’s even some lighter stuff such as the Hollywood Prom, but if you’re in London and are looking to spend £5, then I doubt you can get more for your fiver than this.
Photos: Chris Christodoulou