The Proms: England, Summer, and Music

The Proms: orchestras, opera, folk music, jazz, top class artists from across the United Kingdom and from many other parts of the world, rock stars and stars of classical music, show tunes, singalongs, fireworks…

All that is just part of what goes on during the BBC Proms, which bills itself as the world’s greatest classical music festival.

Classical music? Before you let the idea of not liking, not knowing, or not caring about classical music stop you (I did intrigue you with learning about bagpipes in an earlier story, didn’t I?), read on for a bit. The Proms go beyond classical music, and they may expand your thoughts about what classical music is and how to enjoy it, too.

The Proms have been going on every summer since 1895. This year, there will be 70 main concerts taking place from 19 July through 14 September. There are plenty of talks, workshops, radio show tapings, and family activities in addition to the main concerts.

These events take place in London. There are several ways to join in if you will not be in the city — or in England, for that matter — during this time, too. More about that in a bit.

Most of the concerts are held at the Royal Albert Hall, and most of the talks and other events are held at the nearby Imperial College Union. The concerts never sell out, because up to 1,350 standing room only tickets in the Arena (right up close to the stage) and the Gallery (upper floor)are held for sale on the day, even if all seated tickets have been sold. It’s this way of attending concerts, meant to open up an informal way of experiencing world class music, that gives the whole thing its name: this is called promenading.

royal albert hall london exterior proms

These prom tickets cost 6 pounds (about 7.50 usd at this writing) each.
Six pounds to see world class artists such as violinist Nicola Benedetti, African susperstar Angelique Kidjo, Chineke! Europe’s first majority Black and minority ethnic orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony, a concert of jazz great Duke Ellington’s sacred music, a concert from the top folk artists who created the nature themed music of Spell Songs, an evening of film music curated by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, an evening of music honoring the moon landing 50 years ago… interested yet?

Though some prom tickets are available on line, you will likely have to queue up on the day, for those prom tickets and to get into free events, to which admission for almost all is first come first served. Lining up in queues is quite organized and usually very friendly, and there are people from the venue about to assist.

You can, because of the prom ticket system, just turn up on any day and see what’s on in free events and in concerts, and if you are able to get in. You can, of course, buy tickets for seated areas of the hall (some at 15 pounds or less) in advance, too. The BBC Proms website has loads of information about the schedules and the artists, and advice about ticketing.

One ticket that isn’t included in the six pound prom scheme — directly, anyway — is the closing night concert, which includes rock stars, opera stars, and closes with singalongs. If you purchase five or more prom tickets during the season, though, you will be eligible for one six pound prom ticket to the Last Night of the Proms at Albert Hall, which is really quite a big deal and is linked by video with concerts which take place nearby in Hyde Park (that’s the one with fireworks), and at sites in Belfast, Swansea, and Glasgow, as well.

proms royal albert hall interior

Several highlights to consider:
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Lisa Batiashvili offers a program of Sibelius, Prokofiev, and Strauss. Earlier in the Proms history, both the Sibelius and Prokofiev pieces they will play were premiered as new works by the festival’s pioneering first conductor Henry Wood.

World music superstar and Grammy Award winner Angélique Kidjo marks her first appearance at the Proms with a concert that traces musical travels between Africa and the new world. Growing up in Benin, Kidjo loved the music of Cuban salsa musician Celia Cruz. Later she came to find out that Cruz drew inspiration from Yoruba music traditions, which had made their way to the new world from Benin with enslaved people. Kidjo brings these songs back to their beginnings in West Africa with Afrobeat and juju styles.

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain takes the work of young musicians seriously, and offers those selected the opportunity to learn from creating world class performances. Nicola Benedetti is an award winning classical violinist, a gifted teacher, and an artist who is passionate about the value of music education to enrich all areas of life. At this season of the Proms, they team up to offer Tchaikovsky, Auerbach, and Prokofiev.

violinst nicola benedetti by kevin westenberg

Perhaps you or someone you know would love to attend a concert but is hard of hearing, autistic, blind, or has other circumstances which might make the usual concert atmosphere challenging. Then you’ll want to consider the Relaxed Prom. The BBC Philharmonic will perform music by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. There will be relaxed attitudes to movement and noise in the auditorium, and space to go outside if breaks are needed. There will be audio description and sign language interpretation available also.

Folk and classical musicians join in celebrating nature for an evening inspired by Robert Macfarlane’s book The Lost Words. Illustrator Jackie Morris will be creating paintings on the spot, the Southbank Sinfonia will offer Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, and other nature themed pieces, and Kris Drever, Julie Fowlis, Karine Polwart, and other folk musicians will add songs they’ve created for Spell Songs, a recording inspired by the book.

Show tunes will be presented in several concerts, too. There’s a bit that from an earlier season in the video below. Whatever your taste in music, this may give you a smile — and a taste of what things can be like at the Proms

To join in for events at the Proms you’ll not be visiting in person, there are several possibilities. If you can receive BBC television, many of the concerts will be broadcast. Wherever you live in the world, you can tune in to almost all the concerts and some of the talks as well on BBC Radio Three. The festival booklet is available for purchase online worldwide, too, in print, electronic, and audio versions. The BBC Proms are on social media channels as well.

London Big ben streetlight proms

Photograph of Nicola Benedetti by Kevin Westenberg

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