The BBC Proms, dubbed the world’s largest classical music festival, are an integral part of any summer in London. Beginning on 18 July they last for eight weeks and feature 76 concerts at the Albert Hall, sometimes with two on the same night. With a further 13 chamber music Proms at the nearby Cadogan Hall, it is the type of event that many people have considered trying, but aren’t always sure where to start.
This is a shame as the Proms were originally designed to make music more accessible to people, and that spirit has continued with the concerts noted for their informal atmosphere. Nor are they just about classical music, with concerts featuring Pet Shop Boys, Laura Mvula, BBC Sports theme tunes, CBeebies characters and War Horse puppets rubbing shoulders with the likes of Beethoven, Brahms and Strauss this year (see our top ten of the season).
But what is the secret to having a good night out? Well, you can book a seated ticket for a Prom as you would for any other event, but the real fun lies in the act of promenading. The Proms are the only place in the world where the cheapest places in the auditorium are also the best! Every concert has up to 1,400 standing tickets to sell on the day, and these can get you closer to the action than anyone else.
The two standing areas are the arena and gallery. The arena is right by the stage, is the perfect place if you like to be up close, and is usually better for small, intimate works. The gallery is right at the top of the hall, can work well for large symphonies, and some people prefer its atmosphere as it is far easier to sit, or even lie, on the floor.
When you arrive at the hall, simply join the arena day queue or gallery day queue. Then 45 minutes before the start time when they open the doors, pay £5 (it must be cash) as you go in. The standing places for over half of Proms do not sell out (and where they don’t you could turn up five minutes before), but when there is a risk that they might there are ways of maximising your chances.
Although much depends on the individual Prom, as a general rule fewer Proms in the first half of the season sell out. The final two weeks of the season tend to be the busiest as people return from their holidays, and a glut of world class orchestras appear. Traditionally, the Berlin Philharmonic has always been the most popular orchestra, requiring several hours of queuing to stand a chance of getting in.
But queuing is not the chore you might think it is! When you join the queue you will be given a raffle ticket that allows you to leave for short breaks for food and drink and (provided you don’t abuse the system by staying away for hours) return where you were before. By the time you’ve got stuck into a good book or chatted with the person next to you (and Proms queuers tend to be very friendly) the time soon whizzes by.
Every evening Prom is preceded by a talk (usually on that night’s works) at the Royal College of Music directly opposite the Albert Hall. These generally start 105 minutes before the concert (although it is worth checking the full schedule) and always end before the doors open. As this constitutes ‘Proms business’, provided that you have your raffle ticket, you can attend the talk, learn something about the evening’s concert, and rejoin the queue where you were before. This means that for the final two hours before the concert, it will hardly feel as if you’ve queued at all.
When there are two concerts in an evening, if you go to the first concert, your raffle ticket will enable you to re-join the queue for the second where you were before, meaning you automatically end up ahead of anyone who only turns up for the later one. This really does give you the opportunity to attend something you know and like, while also trying something new. For example, on 23 July you can experience Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony and the Pet Shop Boys, and on 19 August you can follow Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique with Laura Mvula.
Another alternative is to invest in a weekend pass, which allows you to Prom for even less than £5 a time, and guarantees entry until 20 minutes before for all Proms on the respective weekend (which always includes the Friday). Although full season passes have now sold out, there are still some half season passes available that do the same for either the first or the last four weeks of the season.
The chamber music Proms at Cadogan Hall work on the same principle, where you can buy a ticket in advance or one of the quota of day tickets immediately beforehand (although here they enable you to sit rather than stand!). Given its popularity, the world famous Last Night of the Proms on 13 September has its own special booking rules, but there are various Proms in the Park events on the same night where tickets are more freely available.
The BBC Proms run at the Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, SW7 2AP (and Cadogan Hall) from 18 July to 13 September 2014. For details of all concerts visit the BBC Proms homepage.