Simon Mundy's week at the Proms

Simon Mundy
Friday, August 19, 2022

Simon Mundy takes us behind the scenes at the BBC Proms, with a look at the rehearsals, broadcasting and stars which make this year's festival

Pianist Anna Fedorova and soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska are draped in Ukrainin flags following their Prom 19a with the Ukranian Freedom Orchestra conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson ©Mark Allan
Pianist Anna Fedorova and soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska are draped in Ukrainin flags following their Prom 19a with the Ukranian Freedom Orchestra conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson ©Mark Allan

The BBC Proms have changed a lot since I first stood in the Arena of the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) in the summer of the first moon landing. The fountain has gone (the only form of air conditioning then) and the stage lighting and set is much fancier. Endless electronic gizmos check your tickets if printed, talk to your own gizmos if not. There is no Prom Queue, at least not a proper one that snaked down the steps and past Imperial College Union, which needed to be joined close to lunchtime for the most sought-after tickets which were sold on the door on a first come, first in basis. Now tickets are booked online like all the others and the queue at about 6.30 is just to see who can get closest to the stage rail. I made some very close friends, sitting for hours in those queues 50 years ago – no longer an option for today's post-lockdown students.

For Classical Music, though, I wanted to take a look at how things are these days, not so much from the audience point of view, but from that of the performers, producers and presenters. For the Proms press office this was not easy to arrange. Access controls for both the RAH and the BBC are much stricter than they used to be and so I owe great thanks to Camilla Dervan and her team who worked hard to dismantle barriers for me. I was, in the end, granted access to several rehearsals, allowed to step inside the broadcasting trucks, had a stint in the Radio 3 Presenter's box and mingled with performers and managers backstage.

The technical production side of a Prom is phenomenal. While there was always a radio truck and producer, these days so many of the concerts are televised, streamed and need complicated special effects in the hall, that the process is like a theatre show, film studio and radio booth all rolled into - well, not one but at least five locations. At the back of the Arena sits the team in charge of the stage extra effects, such as sound effects that need to come through the loudspeakers hanging from the roof. Cameras are mounted on rails to allow smooth passage across the floor and a huge boom carries a remotely controlled camera from above the stalls, stage left.

Outside door 11, on what used to be a public road, is a small village of facilities lorries. Most of them carry all the TV gear but one, as for the BBC Symphony Orchestra's concert on 31 July, carries the studio manager's massive mixing desk for the radio, overseen by the chief producer (the BBC SO's Ann McKay on that night). In a cubby hole below the stage sits the Radio 3 producer. It's a cramped space but not as bad as when it used to be in an airless cell at the back of one of the Hall’s Loggia (8 seat) boxes. The producer has a small console and a copy of the script but everything that goes out on air (via a link to Broadcasting House) goes through the middle fader: ultimate power, ultimate stress.

Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Prom 20 ©Chris Christodoulou

Radio 3's presenter for each prom now has more space, enough for a live interval guest. On that night Gillian Moore, who has stepped down recently from her full-time role as director of music over the river at the Southbank Centre, was there to talk about the following week's contemporary music. Ian Skelly was on presenting duty and led me through his evening very tolerantly; not just watching and describing, but cueing in and out from the pre-recorded interviews, and keeping an eye on the time for the handovers back to the studio. His delivery (and Moore’s) sounds spontaneous but there were 15 pages of script, as well as the need to be an alert reporter of all the stage comings and goings: the resetting of the orchestra between works, the 'heave' and 'ho' as the piano lid is raised, the cheer as the leader finds 'A' on the keyboard. Skelly has been with Radio 3 since the early 1990s so is thoroughly relaxed but there is still a quiet moment of tense concentration before the digital clock's lights marking the seconds flick round to 7.30pm.

Backstage the performers crowd through the ring of dressing rooms, instrument cases stacked in the corridor. The conductor's place is no longer tucked away just by the right-hand stage entrance. There is now a more commodious room with sofa and tables, as well as theatre mirror, across the corridor and the walk on is from the other side, stage left. The soloists have similar facilities but the corridor, busy with players and staff of every job title, means that the RAH still has a more egalitarian feel for those performing than halls where there is greater hierarchy and separation. It has backstage buzz, like the wings of an opera house.

Between the rehearsal and concert on 3 August I sat in the conductor’s dressing room with Ryan Bancroft, before he conducted Caroline Shaw's brilliant Entr'acte, and Mahler's Fourth Symphony (with Miah Persson singing the last movement soprano solo immaculately). We talked about string sound, particularly relevant in Shaw's piece which ended with a haunting solo from Alice Neary, and how he had been striving to give the strings character. 'Broadcasting orchestras have to switch repertoire so often that there is a tendency to rely too much on the conductor. I want them to know that they have the freedom to create their own sound within the ensemble.' We talked about dance - a fundamental part of Bancroft's early career - and the crucial dance rhythms which hold Mahler's works together. 'A dance always has to be within the confines of the body and so Mahler must always sound natural, even when he is trying to be grotesque.' Both subjects were evident in the performances, but they were clear during rehearsal too, watching Bancroft guide the players through the complexities of each work.

Ryan Bancroft conducts soprano Miah Persson in Prom 24 ​©Chris Christodoulou​​

A firm grip of complexities was also needed for the previous Saturday's evening Prom, a lovely programme of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the Fountains of Rome and Il Tabarro, the first part of Puccini's Il Trittico. For the events team led by producer Alys Jones, there was the fun of getting the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra on and off for rehearsal for their morning concert on the Sunday before setting up the Hallé Orchestra for the afternoon and evening, the only rehearsal for a semi-staged opera. The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, pulled together in the last few months from refugees from Ukraine's orchestras and their fellows already playing in Western Europe, gave a very creditable account of Brahms' Fourth Symphony with Keri-Lynn Wilson. It was a good week for conductors, but she was high on the list.

Back to the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder. The rehearsal was not a simple matter. As Proms director David Pickard mentioned in his remarks of welcome, the orchestra had made it from Manchester to Kensington on the day of a rail strike. Then there was the matter of which podium to use. Elder rejected the usual one with smart brass rails, and the small square one used when the conductor needs to stand behind the piano. He needed one he could range back and forth across, for the orchestra, for the singers behind him, for those coming through side entrances and, via camera, players and singers in the gallery. A large chunk of staging, usually used for the brass, was produced.

Elder has an extraordinary way of taking control of everything around him, frequently calling out to his assistant, Delyana Lazarova, at the back of the stalls for information about balance or volume. To the trumpeter in the gallery he yelled, 'too close; back further - no, further - find a door and some stairs'. When the sound seemed to come across the park from Kensington Palace, that was 'perfect'. To the chorus he called for, 'more clarity with the words: more Italian - think of the meaning, sing more delicately, be brave.' A semi-staged scene is one of the rare times a conductor gets to direct the action (though Toscanini often took on the whole thing), so Elder was moving the singers around, asking for more distance when they were playing characters in conflict, more contact with eyes and bodies when they were intimate.

Conductor Mark Elder takes a bow with the stars of Prom 19's semi-staged Il tabarro ©Chris Christodoulou

For stage control, though, the prize has to go to Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra on 2 August. For the first half - Xenakis' tiny last work, Omega, for 13 instruments, and then a searing performance of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto by Patricia Kopatchinskaja. The second half, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony played from memory, could have been stage mayhem but amazingly was not. Added to the shenanigans of TV, there was an on-stage presenter, Tom Service, and a mass of complicated lighting cues as Service and Collon spent half an hour, without hesitation, repetition or deviation, taking the audience through the themes, subtleties and politics of the symphony.

The Aurora Orchestra played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony from memory, allowing them to move with the music ©Mark Allan

There's nothing new about such introductions - Anthony Hopkins did it for years - but Aurora take it to a different level. As well as playing the work without the parts, they were choreographed to move around the stage playing the illustrations too. It meant that they played, as their manager John Harte told me backstage after the rehearsal, with 'chamber music communication and a deep knowledge of the music.' It also means they have to rehearse without recourse to figure and bar numbers which, 'is a real counting challenge for the winds.' The oddity of the final concert was that the sheer showmanship of the introductory section made the feat of delivering the full symphony feel near normal. Except it was not. All the players that could were standing, as in a baroque ensemble, moving with the energy of soloists, their bodies dancing with their instruments, invigorating the audience and Beethoven's music with ferocious dynamism.

What a week! After it all my love of the idiosyncratic Albert Hall and the Proms was back: changed enough to be innovative, familiar enough from my teenage years to feel like home.