Royal Albert Hall -- Proms concert review
I'm sitting on the steps of the Royal Albert Hall at the moment, waiting for the doors to open. I've bought myself a ticket to the Proms tonight. It's quite nice out here in the evening. The sun is just about to head home and duck down behind the terracotta rooftops, and everyone is dressed up in nothing much at all — it's very hot today. I thought it was going to be all shirts and ties but it's more like sandals and flip-flops. It doesn't look much like a classical crowd. Not your typical Mozart fans, I don't think. Not that I know much about classical music myself... it's all violins and tubas, I think. Trumpets and kettledrums. Probably got a few tin whistles too, and a bald bloke waving a stick around at the front. That is all I know about classical music.
I'm going to Proms #16, if you're interested, by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra. They are playing some something by Balakirev and Islamey (nope, I've never heard of them either), Prokofiev, Mozart, Handel and Holst. And the "Queen of Sheba" by Resphigi.
Okay, I'm in... I've got myself a nice seat up around the side in the Grand Tier. Try and imagine one of those little balcony boxes where the Muppets sit -- that's me. The central stage is decorated in deep reds and purples, with pink and yellows and it's very pretty. We've got the sound of cymbals and tubas tuning up (how do you tune a cymbal?), and a little cough cough of animated chatter as the crowd comes in. I hadn't realised this before, but they've taken out all of the central seats and made it standing room only, like a pop concert. It seems a bit weird for a classical gig. They're all sitting down on the floor with their handbags at the feet. Some of them are lying flat on their backs with puffed up pillows. It's all very civilised at the Royal Albert Hall. I don't suppose it really matters if you can't see the musicians at a Proms concert. It's all about the noise, isn't it. It's not like the conductor is going to rip his top off and start dancing like Rihanna. I can't see him ending the set Jimi Hendrix-style, with a burning baton on the stage.
There is a lot more standing room available at the top of the dome as well, if you want a cheap ticket, because the very highest level hasn't got any seats. I don't know how to explain it... it's like a running track that runs around the top. People just stand up there and peer over the edge. I can see them up there now, all leaning on the barrier.
The orchestra has started to wander onto the stage now. Some of them are skipping in, with little flutes and piccolos, whilst some poor sods are dragging a ten-tonne double bass behind them. Two big harps have come on now, taller than a double-decker bus. Now the violins are tuning up. It's getting difficult to tell which bit is practice and which bit is a song. It all sounds good to me.
It's definitely close to show time now because they've stopped messing around and are playing proper songs. Still no sign of the conductor though.
The Grand Tier is definitely the best place to sit, methinks, especially if you get a seat at the front. Maybe the level above will be okay too (if you get a seat near the front). I wouldn't bother going any higher than that though, because you'll be right up in the gods. It would be like staring down from the side of a mountain. The seats are so steep up there that you'll probably have to strap yourself in. I wouldn't fancy sitting or standing in the central pit either, because it's too much like Brighton beach on a sunny day, with everyone fighting over five feet of personal space. Nope... the Grand Tier it is. And my box number is pretty good too (box number 12). Don't go any further round the circle than 10 or 11 though, or you'll be too side-on to the stage.
The crowd is mostly middle-aged and above — 50% bald heads and grey hairs. There are probably quite a few wigs hidden in there too. There is no dress code whatsoever.
The people in the boxes have all got plastic cups of red and white wine, and little tubs of Haagen Dazs. And what have I got? A melted packet of Minstrels which I'm too embarrassed to eat.
So I've got two hours of classical music now... here we go... let's hope I don't need a wee...
The principal violinist has come out now to wild applause. And then the conductor comes out in his penguin suit and the whole place goes nuts. We are all on our feet clapping like mad, but I haven't got a clue why. I am just clapping along for the hell of it. I am secretly clapping for the cleaner at the side of the stage. Then the lights go down and up comes the first note.
The sound doesn't seem all that loud, at first, but at various moments in the tune it rumbles up into a roar like a bone-shaking thunder. Some of it is quite violent, with sharp shrieks and wailing; whilst at other times they have it turned down lower than your ears can register.
Even if you don't like the music there is still plenty to look at. Everyone's heads and bodies are bobbing about in unison, bows darting back and forth in a swish swish swish. It's like they've all had a thousand cappuccinos before the show. Arms and elbow pumping left and right and up and down, carrying the tune like a piston. The conductor is almost dancing off his podium, he's possessed. He's been overtaken with wild, exaggerated movements, like a ham actor. It's not just his hands flying about, he's got his arms and legs in motion too. It's like he's made of rubber, arms wafting around like wind socks on flag poles. To my untrained eye his movements don't seem to correspond with the music. Obviously they do — I'm not an idiot. But it's hard to make out what he's ordering the band to do. When he waves his stick in the air, what does that mean? He's just prancing about and nobody is paying a blind bit of notice. They are all too busy reading the actual music. He reminds me of that Bez bloke in the Happy Mondays, who got wheeled out every show to give the punters something to look at.
I'm trying to decide which instrument I'm going to play, in case they ask me up onto the stage. It's probably going to be one of the crap ones at the back, out of sight. Maybe a tambourine or a triangle. I reckon I could just about manage one of those without screwing it up. I mean, how talented do you have to be to hit a triangle with a stick? That's the one they give the thick kids at play school. They certainly have got some strange instruments up there. One girl is playing the wooden clappers. It looks like she's smacking two cheese boards together.
I like the way the principal violinist has got her own lackey to turn over the songbook. There's quite a lot of that going on, I think. Everyone seems to have their own level. The orchestra might look pretty in their penguin suits and cocktail dresses, but I reckon behind the scenes it is a seething sea of jealousies. When the curtain comes down it's all cat fights and back stabbings, as they jostle for the best seat on stage. That's why a lot of the tunes are so pounding and angry, because they are playing out the private battles in their heads. Every time they attack a note they are imagining the bow plunging into the back of their neighbour's neck. It's an orchestra of enemies, being led by a stick wielding nutter at the front. That is what I imagine anyway, to liven it up. Whilst they are playing out the tunes, I am playing out the fights.
The show has come to a close now, and I'll tell you what... this orchestra certainly knew how to milk the applause. They basically just stood there for five minutes whilst we fed them the claps. We were wilting and losing people to exhaustion but still they stood on. It's as if we had to charge them up with claps, to get them off the stage. Once the clapometer hit a million they eventually relented and let our tired hands have a rest.
So then... would I recommend a visit to the Proms? I think I would, yes. I can't say that I'm a classical music convert, but it's definitely worth a watch. It certainly gives your heart a good work out anyway, as it thumps away to the loud bits.
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