Last year during a trip to London to take in a couple of Proms we had an interesting behind-the-scenes tour of the Royal Albert Hall. This year we unwittingly captured a different angle on the major scale of activity that goes into this summer-long festival.
As usual we’d chosen to stay at Imperial College’s Beit Hall for its convenience right next door. This meant we could pop out to collect our low-numbered queue tickets at 9am then forget about it until an hour or so before that evening’s concert when we were required to physically line up in order. This relatively new arrangement must be something of a bugbear for Londoners who come and queue after a day at work, but very handy for weary tourists who have quite likely already been on their feet for much of the day. After a couple more upright hours, there’s nothing like being able to take the one-minute stroll back to the Student Union bar then a short flight of stairs up to one’s room.
Our room on this occasion overlooked not only those famous queuing steps but also the ramp down into the underground deliveries area. After listening to the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra on the first evening we watched a lorry load of their instruments leaving the building, and this set the tone for comings and goings a-plenty, an indication of the massive organisational operation such a festival entails. It also made it a bit noisy in the early morning, but it was fascinating to see the variety of vendors and, as it were, supporting acts involved. In true Proms spirit, they formed their own queue at times when several arrived in quick succession: caterers of multiple cuisines, cleaning companies, communications specialists (that evening’s programmes, perhaps?), wines and spirits closely followed by mineral water. A logistics lorry belied its specialism when it apparently rolled up in the wrong order and disrupted the queue by backing out again. We wondered if the dairy produce van labelled Allan Reeder was bringing ice creams for the woodwind section.
As for the music, well that also delivered. For three consecutive nights we stood in the Arena near the stage and enjoyed that close connection that only promming can give you. We were so pleased to get two bites of the Hungarian cherry as we caught both performances by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and they were sensational. I got goosebumps during their first night’s encore, when they not only played Laudate Dominum from Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes, but simultaneously sang it. And really sang – these instrumentalists had seriously good voices! If I was hoping for more encore singing at their next concert, I wasn’t disappointed, as they sang the original folk tune melody whilst playing Brahms’ 4th Hungarian Dance.
The real stars of this gypsy-rhythm-meets-classical-Hungarian show, though, were József Lendvay Sr and József Lendvay Jr. The former came from the gypsy tradition while his son had also been brought up in that style to begin with but continued into a classical training. They each had their spotlight moment playing Liszt, Brahms and Sarasate, then charismatic conductor Iván Fischer pondered “Isn’t a shame that father and son don’t get to play together?” and proceeded to introduce a special duet arrangement of Brahms’ 11th Hungarian Dance. The rapport, love and emotion between the pair will not be forgotten. Incredibly moving.
The following morning as we packed to leave Beit Hall, a BBC Symphony Orchestra lorry headed down the delivery ramp. The perpetual motion of the Proms season continued.