Having just returned from a summer of travels around India, where it takes you a minimum of six hours to travel between cities and another few to work out where on earth you’ve ended up, my sense of time in relation to distance has been completely stretched. The revelation that I can get from one side of the UK to the other in less time than it takes to move between two moderately sized towns in the Himalayan foothills has struck, and so with little heed for the price of a last minute train ticket, last Thursday I made an impromptu jump onto the First Great Western train to the big city. In just four hours, I’d left my small town in West Wales far behind and had arrived, ready and eager to soak up the best of British culture in the 24 hours before my train ride home.
As a family, we’ve always enjoyed going to the last night of the Proms, broadcast in various parks around the country. Snuggled up with our fleeces and picnics, we’re all too happy to stand and sing the Welsh National Anthem with the rest of Singleton Park, all of whom are proud as punch (and probably tipsy as, too), waving flags and convincing ourselves that we’d always wanted to see Only Men Allowed sing live anyway. At the end of the evening, as the trumpet fanfare is passed around the four nations of Britain via a televised link, there spreads a feeling that we’re participating not just in a live concert in a park in Swansea but in a celebration of music all over the country, and sharing in an immense feeling of national pride. Yet although the camera flicks to flag-waving scenes in Belfast, Glasgow, and this year, Caerphilly in Wales, it always returns to the hub of the event, the Royal Albert Hall in London. It is here that the biggest names in the music world perform - this year the superb violinist Nicola Benedetti will be headlining. As wonderful as it is that each nation is included in the last night celebrations, the summer-long series of concerts is intrinsically associated with its venue, and so on the 8thof September, it’s only natural that the world’s eye will remain fixed on the real star of the show, the Royal Albert Hall.
The tiered seating, the plush red carpets, the bulbs that hang from the ceiling to improve the building’s acoustics are so familiar from the sweeping camera shots from BBC4’s live broadcasts of the concerts. But I’d never seen it for myself, and so naturally I jumped at the chance when a few friends said that they’d be at prom 54: a performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Symphony No. 9, Delius’ Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’ Symphony No.10.
True ‘prommers’ might like to see themselves as being dedicated members of an elite club, queuing up for hours in advance to bag themselves a cheap ticket to the evening concert. But with the freshfaced confidence of promming-newbies we joined their ranks four hours ahead of curtain-up, armed with bags of nibbles and a righteous belief that we deserved a good seat. Despite being asked indignantly if we didn’t know how the system worked, and thereafter being careful to always keep one foot on our place in the queue, the excitement spread along the line of prommers as the concert drew nearer. Soon enough we were inside the enormous hall, in a standing space reserved for those who have waited and fidgeted outside all afternoon, but are rewarded with tickets priced at just £5 a head. It was thrilling to be in such a close proximity to the performers, the Royal Liverpool Philarmonic Orchestra, led by Vasily Petrenko and later joined by soloist Tasmin Little. Aside from the price, these standing seats provided the opportunity to study individual players throughout the evening, watch their own performance while seeing them unite with their section too. Of course, the music was phenomenal, and we all left feeling completely uplifted and inspired.
Sadly, this won’t be the year that I get the full Last Night of the Proms experience in London. And I’m pretty sure I’d have to practise my queue jumping skills quite a bit to avoid camping for nights in advance outside the Hall to ensure tickets. You may have missed the Wallace and Gromit prom last Monday, but with three evenings of incredible music before yet another fine example of a closing ceremony, I can’t urge you enough to get a place in that queue and experience, for a fiver, classical music making at its best.