First Sight of the Proms

150 150 Rob McGibbon

So, what’s a newly married man supposed to do when he gets his first night away from the new wife? Go on a heavy session with the lads and re-tread old haunts? It’s a bit soon for nostalgia for me, so last Friday I did what any self-respecting bloke without a functioning telly would do – I took a long slow walk to the Royal Albert Hall, via the Anglesea, for my first Prom.

I thought I would sample a last-minute “gallery” ticket for a fiver to listen to some quality classical music at feet tingling altitude amongst the “Prommers”. Puffing slightly, I finally arrived at the top deck of the RAH and knew immediately this is not the way I want to listen to Beethoven’s 9th, a much-loved personal favourite.

I’m all up for new experiences, me, but up there I found it infested with a hairy bunch of unkempt, bare-or-soily-sock-footed, picnic-munching,soap-swerving fuddy-duddies and trainee old-before-their-timers. It was like an airport lounge during the French air traffic controllers’ annual strike, with Prommers stretched out on chequered blankets guarding their six-inch sections of laced iron balustrade like sentries in Stalag 17. Elgar’s notes crawled up gasping from below to wrestle for ear-space with the crackle of crisp packets, the fingering of strawberries in creased plastic punnets, and embarrassed usherettes hissing at people to drink their chardonnay contraband outside. Tell me, what is the F-flat point of coming to a classical concert if all you want to do is stuff your big fat furry face? How will you ever know your arse from your oboe if you’ve got a gob full of Walkers?

I immediately regretted not buying a £35 best seat in romantic pursuit of a new experience, so I did the next best thing – I craned over a coleslaw and tomato salad box to scope the arena below for an empty seat. I spotted a cluster of six-or-so near the stage. Years of events experience has taught me that there is no such thing as a 100% sell out, even the First Night of the Proms. And, one tip, if you are ever going to jib in and risk the humiliation of being the only lemon left standing in a fully seated arena, you may as well shoot for the best of the best seats.

So, while the mob was getting stuck into dessert during the interval, I ghosted into the main auditorium and took up position in my new swivel velvet aisle seat in Row 7 – right next to the choir, behind the violins, beside the percussion man and the nervous fellow checking the position of a tiny triangle for the hundredth time. If I had been any nearer to the orchestra, I would have been taking precise instructions from the conductor. But the best thing of all, I was about 3,000ft below the fetid munchers.

And there I waited, indeed sweated, to see if anyone would claim this sensational seat. It was an anxious wait as late-comers piled in for the main event and the vacant cluster was reduced to just one single spare – mine. I have never been happier to hear the opening bars of the 9th. But, my oh my, was it worth the worry. What followed was one of my personal all-time great entertainment pieces, 70 minutes of unadulterated, goose-bumping joy. There are few things in life more inspiring and uplifting than seeing a full orchestra playing in unison.

I’ve “seen” the 9th a few times before and it always makes me cry. Not in a blubbing, hanky-soaked style, but in the simple welling up way. Such is the power of this piece live that my eyes had filled up again within a few minutes of this performance. And the aural power surge when the magnificent double choir – TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTY EIGHT OF THEM! – stood up for the finale almost lifted me out of my free seat to join in. Even watching the high pressure moment when Triangle Man’s moment cometh was truly memorable. He successfully filled the Albert Hall with his little instrument and I saw the relief on his face from about four feet.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it. The piece is playing again during this Prom season. My advice: Go, see, hear it for yourself. Forget the gallery. Leave them to their dinner. Spend more, get a good last minute seat. It was the best thirty five quid I never spent.