Last Night Of The Proms 2023 – A Puffin’s eye view

This particular night has been a very long time coming; pretty much forty years to be precise. I remember first watching the Last Night as a yoof and taking in the spectacle on TV in the family home and treating it with a degree of wonder as to what it must feel like to have been part of that crowd on that night. In many intervening years I have followed the second part of the evening’s programme on BBC1 (until I got rid of my TV that is) again, thinking what does it take to be able to be there on the night? What does it feel like to be amongst that crowd? Is it really as intense as it seems on TV?

Well…. in 2023, I finally got to find out.

A Potted History of The Proms

I’m sure most Puffins have been around the block long enough to know the history of the Proms, but thanks to Wiki, here is a condensed version.

What has always been known to most of us as The BBC Proms is an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts and other events held annually, predominantly in Royal Albert Hall in Kensingto Gore, London. The 2023 Proms season ran from Friday 14 July to Saturday 9 September. The Proms were founded in 1895, and are now organised and broadcast by the BBC. Each season consists of concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, other events at Cadogan Hall (or occasionally other venues) and there are additional Proms in the Park events across the UK on the Last Night of the Proms.

The season is a significant event in British culture and in classical music.  Prom is short for Promenade Concert, a term which originally referred to outdoor concerts in London’s pleasure gardens, where the audience was free to stroll around while the orchestra was playing. In the context of the BBC Proms, promming refers to the use of the standing areas inside the hall (the Arena and Gallery) for which ticket prices are much lower than for the seating. Proms concert-goers, particularly those who stand, are sometimes referred to as “Prommers” or “Promenaders”.

They were inaugurated on 10 August 1895 in the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place by the impresario Robert Newman, experienced in running similar concerts at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Newman wished to generate a wider audience for concert hall music by offering low ticket prices and an informal atmosphere, where eating, drinking and smoking were permitted to the promenaders. He stated his aim toHenry Wood  in 1894 as follows:

I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.

George Cathcart, an otolaryngologist, gave financial backing to Newman for the series (called “Mr Robert Newman’s Promenade Concerts”) on condition that Henry Wood be employed as the sole conductor. Wood, aged 26, seized this opportunity and built the “Queen’s Hall Orchestra” as the ensemble specially devoted to performing the promenade concerts.

Although Newman remained involved in artistic planning, it was Wood’s name which became most closely associated with the Proms. As conductor from the first concert (which opened with Wagner’s Rienzi overture) in 1895, Sir Henry was largely responsible for building the repertoire heard as the series continued from year to year.  A bronze bust of Sir Henry Wood recovered from the ruins of the bombed-out Queen’s Hall in 1941, and now belonging to the Royal Academy of Music is still placed in front of the Organ at the Albert Hall for the whole Promenade season. Though the concerts are now called the BBC Proms, and are headlined with the BBC logo, the tickets are subtitled “BBC Music presents the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts”.

I think thats pretty much the potted history done and dusted to give everyone an equal basic premis.

So what made this year different? Well, a number of things; this was not only the first Last Night since the death of the Queen which led to the cancellation of last years’ event and is therefore the first one with a new monarch and this was the Prommers first opportunity to sing God Save The King at the event; but there was also the other aberration at what was deemed the Black Lives Matter Prom in 2020 where there was no audience plus the ridiculous scene of a socially distanced orchestra and the murder (no other word to describe it) of Jerusalem, which had it been done in front of a live audience I think the performer concerned would have been bottled off. 2021 was almost back to normal, but the choirs were still socially distanced. So, this year was the first proper “back to the new normal” Last Night.

Last Night Of The Proms 2023

What I consider to be a very interesting and thought provoking comment was made by a very dear friend of mine over 25 years ago when he paid well over £200 to see a well known beat combo in Cardiff, but bought the ticket from a tout. A number of us, his close friends, sucked the air in through our teeth and thought “man, thats a lot of brass for a gig – are you sure?” to which the reply came:

“…Imagine, if in the future, after the event, someone were to come along and say to you ‘you know that memory you have of seeing ((whatever concert it was)) at ((whatever venue it was))… I want to buy that memory from you. You know, so that you forget you were ever there, that you forget it ever happened, the whole thing, the preamble, the show itself, the aftermath, it all just vanishes. What price would you put on that memory?’… and if that price that you set is over and above what you paid for the ticket, it was worth it…”

And to my mind he was exactly right. I have applied this rule of thumb to many many gigs, a lot of them at the Albert Hall and in the nearby Hyde Park and it has been the source of many very dear and precious memories that I would absolutely not part with at any price whatsoever. No matter how many zero’s one would put on the end, no one would ever be able to erase the memory of The Finn Brothers in 2005 or Heart in 2016 or even All About Eve in 1989, or Carole King or Stevie Wonder in Hyde Park or many others.

So, this year, while I am still fortunate to be earning and being quite well remunerated for what I do, I decided that this year was going to be it. When the season’s tickets were released, I made the effort to go the Albert Hall website and look at the price of season tickets, as I was pretty sure that this was going to be the only dependable and the safest way of guaranteeing access on the night. At first, I balked at it a bit…£250 a head for season tickets, so between myself and Mrs F, we were looking at (including booking fee) over £520 between us before we even thought about hotels, transport, etc.  The first time I looked, in May when the dates and programme was announced, I bottled it. But, something kept pulling me back in and a few short days later, I girded my loins and went for it and then told Mrs F afterwards that it was going to happen. At the same time, I booked the hotel for the night, a well known serving and former forces establishment in London and that was that. Stage 1 was complete.

Stage 2 involves the day before the big night, where if you are going to use your season ticket, you have to ‘reserve’ a promming ticket via the website or in person at the venue from 12:00 the day before to no later than 10:30AM on the day of the event itself. Obviously, I didnt take it as a given that we would get in, if I wasnt sharp out of the blocks. So, like any good Puffin, there I was at 11:59AM on the morning of Friday 8th, F5’ing like my life depended on it waiting for the ‘Promming Tickets’ button to illuminate.

You then get a choice of either Gallery or Arena Standing or Arena Seated. Gallery is the very top of the building with no seats and is standing only and the arena is the floor of the venue itself. There are some reserved seats for those who cant stand for up to 3 hours, but considering everyone else in the arena is standing, seeing anything from a seated position is quite challenging. So, we just went for Arena Standing and had done with it. Tickets were then duly secured and collected in PDF format on the phone ready for admission the following day.

Incidentally, we did also attend another prom during the season, specifically Prom 45, Mahler’s 3rd but that was as a dry run for for big night to make sure of logistics, timings, etc. The main thrust this year was all about the Last Night as it was a big bucket list item for both of us.

On the 9th September then, we left Warwickshire by rail and made our way to Euston and then the hotel; once checked in, an early dinner near at brasserie style restaurant near the river and the Tube journey to South Kensington beckoned. The weather was seriously hot. I mean ‘sweat pouring off you’ hot, especially on the Underground where air conditioning is not exactly something that can be counted on to work. On arriving at South Ken Tube, it was then a case of making our way up Exhibition Road towards the Albert Hall in the sweltering heat, trying find shade from the glare of the sun.

On the day of the event, you get a ‘what to expect’ email which tells you what times the doors open and what the procedure is for those with promming tickets; I did question this with the Booking Office to make sure I understood it and was led by them to believe that we would not need to queue, as we were season ticket holders as was the case with Prom 45. More of that later.

One thing that struck me as a bit odd was a number of people with small A4 sized EU flags wandering down Exhibition Road away from the venue. I did wonder what the hell these guys were doing… why would you have an EU flag and be walking away from the thing? This also became obvious much later on. We turned the corner after Imperial College to take the short cut round the back of the building and heard the semi-orchestral tones of a battery powered PA speaker and a troupe of about 6 dancers in leotards or the such like wearing EU t-shirts were dancing around with one of their number selling said EU flags, as were a couple of others near the building, the usual bootleg merchandise lot that you see at any event; but this lot were different in that they seemed to be being shepherded around by a stumpy crew cut middle aged dude bearing a resemblance to a middle aged DI Burnside wearing a T-shirt that was emblazoned “Break Brexit Before It Breaks Britain”. I could feel my buttons being pushed but Mrs F was most keen that we ignore them, didnt give them the oxygen of attention and just carry on enjoying the night for ourselves rather than get caught up in their hate. A very very wise woman, is Mrs F.

We found that when we were seeking entry to the building that those of us on the arena floor would need to have to go to another door and collect wristbands which give our standing place numbers. Not that they really mean anything but nonetheless, those were the rules we had to play by so, off we duly trotted to Door 12, got the wristbands and then returned to Door 1 to gain access into the Arena.

The picture above shows the arena starting to fill up at around about 6.30-6.45PM and is seen from the back of the arena floor. Note the relative lack of flags at this stage and the gaps on the left hand side and also on the floor itself. It then dawned on me where those people were going that we saw walking away down Exhibition Road; they had come to the venue, picked up their wristbands to gain entry into the venue on the night and then decided that they’d forgo the equivalent of the Support act and would just turn up for the big hoorah in the second half when they’d have more chance of being on TV.

Lesson one about the type of people who come to this event. Not too sour a taste in the mouth, but it was to my mind that they hadnt come for the love of the music or the occasion itself. It was for another more selfish purpose.

Lesson two being that despite it being an arena, some people were incredibly precious about the concept of personal space. The first couple Mrs F and I stood near were most put out that I was within 6 foot of him. Once I refused to move, he and his partner huffed and puffed over to another location on the arena floor, I know not where. We were then stood near to a very elderly chap with his wife on one side who had come from Stonehenge and this was the 5th prom they’d been to on their season ticket and on the other side by a chap in his late 70s who it turned out was an opera fan and had come primarily to see the guest operatic soprano, Lise Davidson. Having never seen an operatic soprano live in the flesh before, I had no idea what to expect. Both couples though very chatty and very easy to get on with and were clearly music lovers. To the right of them stood a chap at about 6 foot 3 who had a star spangled sphincter beret on and was waving both an EU flag and a Union Jack. It turned out, as he was talking to the camerawoman directly behind where Mrs F and I were stood, that his main priority was to be seen on TV and everything else was secondary.

Lesson three about the type of people who attend these events; obsessed with getting their faces on the idiot box. Less said about them the better. He did ask Mrs F if she would prefer to stand in front of him and got quite a curt no thank you from both of us. We were quite happy with the places we’d got at the back of the hall and were keen to stick to them. We’re both too long in the tooth to be thinking about getting into the equivalent of a classical music moshpit for three hours, thank you very much.

The first half began at 7PM with Strauss’ Don Juan, long-ish piece at 20 minutes, followed by the introduction of Sheku Kanneh-Mason on cello for Kol Nidrei. Now, this young chap had made some headlines over the preceding days with opining that had he had his way, the programme for the Last Night would look very different; Rule! Britannia would be swept away and replaced more by folk music, etc. Very chippy and somewhat entitled given that he and all of his siblings are all not just professional, classically trained musicians, but also classically trained musicians of note as well. He seems like he’s been oppressed for far too long though. But enough of that. I will give him credit where it is due though. The man can play and is a worthy cello virtuoso, even at the tender age of 27. He has a remarkable gift, I cannot and will not try and take that away from him because he is given to the odd, ill-advised, probably media-goaded controversial remark. But nonetheless… the dude can play.

Three other pieces were played before the next highlight (for me, personally anyway) – the introduction of the guest Operatic Soprano for the night, Lise Davidson. As I mentioned, I’ve never heard a real live one in the flesh and the first aria that she did, Wagner’s “Tannhäuser – ‘Dich, teure Halle’” had me thinking, hello, whats this about? Mrs F is not a fan of sopranos, but while she was away using the facilities I was lapping this performance up, as was the old guy next to me, the elderly opera fan. I have always loved female singers – well any singer for that matter – that have power, passion, light and shade, they sound like they mean it and technique. And Ms Davidsen has that in absolute spade loads. Mrs F duly returned to hear the second aria, Mascagni’s

Cavalleria Rusticana (the Easter Hymn). Mrs F and I were both agreed, man this is impressive. With the chorale behind her, this was a superb exhibition, a masterclass of technique, feel, light and shade. But the 3rd one that really had me paying attention was Verdi’s Vieni t’affretta – Lady Macbeth. It starts with a short passage in spoken word in Italian and there are a few subsequent passages that are acapella – just that huge voice and that big hall where you could hear a bloody pin drop, everybody absolutely enraptured by what they are hearing  – and NOWHERE in the world does that like the Albert Hall does. Four and a half thousand music lovers hanging on every sound.

At that point I was looking at the old guy next to me with my chin on my chest mouthing expletives like “F**k me, this is amazing” and it just kept on getting better and better. I tried not to look at the performer and just listen with just my ears and not my eyes and see what all the rest of the audience were making of it. Lots of impressed raised eyebrows out there, Davidsen most certainly made a lot of new fans that night, of that I’ve no doubt whatsoever.

By the end of that piece, he had tears in his eyes, he’d really got into it and it was obvious that he was a real opera lover. One day, he said, she’ll make a world beating Brunnhilde. I’ll have to take his word for it because I dont know how complex that piece is for a soprano, but I’m guessing its a pretty big deal. It impressed the hell out of me and by the end of the piece I was thinking “I’ve got to get me some more of this. How the hell have I got to nearly 60 without opera in my life?

Mrs F on the other hand, doesnt like sopranos and I dont think it was quite her cup of chamomile, somehow. Meh…. I f**king LOVED it.

Lesson four about the type of people who come to this night… Some are truly there because they love the music and they bring all their energy with them.

At this point came the thirty minute intermission which a lot of the hall took the chance to stretch their legs, go to the bar and use the conveniences.

Lesson five about the type of people who attend; the attention seekers, not the telly freaks. There was one LGBTQWERTY flag up on one of the Loggia Boxes that I could see and there was one creature, god knows what it was wearing said alphabet people flag like a cape with an EU beret which he insisted on doffing at everyone within a ten foot radius as if he was doing it for clicks, for validation, for endorsement, itching for someone to tell him how right on he was or how funny he was…. we just tried to ignore him in the hope that he’d find someone elses leg to piss up and annoy which thankfully he did. Never saw him again after that.

The second half began on time just after 8.30pm, if I recall rightly with Higher. Further. Faster. Together. (Theme from The Marvels), one of the new pieces of the night as is the wont of the Last Night. Lots of elastic/plastic bracelets that we’d all been issued that light up depending on what the lighting director had in mind… white, blue, red, yellow, whatever. Its alright if you like that kind of thing. I’m not sure it really added to the experience for me personally but they seemed to love it.

And as you can observe if you look closely, more of the flags come out… and I remember posting a picture to GP along the lines of “….Look son… flag wankers…. flag wankers everywhere…” Those that had gone missing during the first half certainly filled up the remaining seats and floor space in the arena.

The other thing that struck me was how quickly the second half seemed to go. Before we knew it, even though there was another two glorious Davidsen aria to enjoy in the meantime (The Gypsy Princess and Bachianas Bazilieras with the aforementioned Mr Kannu-Mason in tow), we were heading for the Fantasia On British Sea Songs, leading into the first of the big four set pieces, the Sailors Hornpipe. What I never realised was once the er…. sound effects and the audience participation starts, you cant hear the orchestra. Pretty much at all. Particularly once all the foot-stomping and hand clapping starts and it just gets faster and faster and more and more intense, the only way I could keep up with it was by watching Marin Alsop’s baton rise and fall. And this starts the point where the Conductor gives you another couple of bites at it and is one of the favourite parts for most prommers.

And then the confetti cannons started going off, some in close proximity others further away. Big yellow balloons and beach balls bouncing along in the arena, along with the legendary bobbing up and down.

And from there, via a lovey version of The Londonderry Air, into Rule! Brittania. Now for some odd reason while Davidsen was mic’d up and audible through the PA for the rest of her performances, when it came to this old classic with all its connotations, Davidsen was left to project all the way to the back of the hall unaided, which struck me as a bit odd. The Outside Broadcast and the Radio 3 coverage which I’ve listened back to since seem to be as normal, but she had to really push to be properly heard at the back by the rest of us proles. Did someone lean on the mute button for her mic on the PA? God only knows. It didnt spoil it for any of the prommers on the floor though. “One more?” ask’s Marin Alsop from the conductor’s podium. Damn right. “Only if you’re nice though. You’ll have to beg her” (Davidsen). I dont think there was a single person in that audience who wouldnt have done so that night.

And the longer it went on the more it dawned on me about Lesson Six of the type of people who attend the Last Night. The Remainers Who Just Cant Let It Go. I cannot understand why one would pay that amount of money, to attend a night which is all about the things that it is – music that pre-dates the whole EU experiment – and yes, has music pieces for a different era but why would you turn up and sing along and be surrounded by others with British flags so that you can express your hate for what those flags represent?

Why would you do it? £500 a pop for two tickets just so you could express your own internal caustic personality about what you think the night and its music represents but you just have to be there so you can stick it to the Union Jack lot and remind them who is the boss? Are their lives really that empty that this is how they get their jollies? Mrs F and I didnt attend the event to make any kind of political point, but to enjoy the music, the atmosphere and the energy of the occasion.

Now into the home stretch, Pomp and Circumstance Number 1. This was the one that I’d watched for so many years and been forever enthralled by Elgar’s orchestration with its rises and swoops and soars and climbs and had marvelled at what it must be like to be in the hall while it is happening. Well, we were about to find out.

One more confetti cannon goes off and into the first part of it and the bobbing up and down, and the swooping strings and brass stabs… every bit as glorious as I’d hoped it would be and that was just the opening passage up to the first singalong part… which I’d always remembered as being hummed by the audience, but not this year. They went for it, singing quite gently at first but after the crescendo getting louder and louder… 2nd time around, proper full voice. It struck me that having been spoiled by very loud rock gigs at the Hall that an orchestral performance is nowhere near as loud. Maybe I wasnt going to get as much out of it as I thought I was going to.

And then second time around when the big build up really starts and theres the long climb up to where the singing really starts… jeeeeeezus christ, my goosebumps had goosebumps. Proper lump in the throat time. Its nearly a week later and I still get emotional thinking about it.

“Would you like that again?” asks Alsop… “One more time, with feeling!”

…and this time the organ joins in as well and now theres a sonic depth and breadth to it that make it even more special... All I could do was look around with my gob hanging open listening to over 4500 people singing their hearts out. I did take a couple of short videos of it. And I make no apologies whatsoever for my voice failing to quite hit the high note at the end. Bloody magnificent. Everything I hoped it would be.

Then the conductors speech. Alsop is without doubt a deserving and world class conductor. But, as a lot of people in the industry do, they make a big noise about its how they’ve smashed it as women in a mans world and there ought to be more inclusivity and all that bollocks. You did it because you’re world class at what you do and you rightly get recognition for it, not because of what you do or dont have down your trousers for gods sake. Apart from the thanks due to the performers of the night, the rest of the speech about building an equitable world for the next generations and gender parity…. I could take it or leave it.

And then the one I’d really come to hear, the one that I was convinced that I would end up being an emotional mess on the floor when that came to its conclusion…Parry’s Jerusalem.

It seemed to be almost the end before I was ready for it. And unlike the other big pieces, you only get one go at Jerusalem. Despite it being a Blake polemic, it has come mean so much to so many of us of all manner of political leanings; it should definitely be the English national anthem.

And for the start of the 2nd verse (“Bring me bow of burning gold”) and the organ joins in as well and there is the magnificent string glissandos…. I was in rapture. And, I do have a 40 second video of the big finish (“til we have built Jerusalem”) and yes, my voice did crack at the end of it (quite badly too), so I’m not sharing that link with you, LOLZ.

National Anthem (which not that many of the audience sang, I certainly didnt), then Old Lang Syne. Mrs F and I had held hands with the old opera fan couple next to us during Auld Lang Syne and then that was it. Lots and lots of thunderous applause with all sections of the orchestra rightly being invited by Alsop to reap the applause they deserved and then… time to find our way back to the hotel and to get outside into relatively fresh air and to cool down a bit.

At times it felt like it was a hundred degrees in there but there wasnt a single decision that I regret about going for it and for making sure that this particular item was crossed off the bucket list.

Would we do it again? I dont know. Mrs F says she would like to. I’m not so sure.

I want this particular memory to be pure, unsullied, not to end up being compared to other subsequent ones, for better or worse. I would gladly go to more Proms in future, in terms of individual concerts, but would I want to do another Last Night?

Well, I guess we’ll soon see when the 2024 season comes around. For those who may have wanted to do it and have hesitated, or thought it might never happen… remember my friend’s old adage at the beginning. If you think and believe that this is a bucket list thing for you, the decision makes itself. You have to do it. If your heart is truly open to the occasion and the music, you have to do it while you still can. It is everything that it appears to be on television and more. And while I am biased about the Albert Hall, there is nowhere in the world like it. Being surrounded by it while it is happening all around you is like opium. Its utterly addictive.

This is a memory I will take to my grave that I will treasure and sometimes you just have to go for it. Its not cheap, although there are other ways of getting tickets but you’ve got to be a lot more pushy/diligent/mercenary/sharp elbowed/delete as applicable than what Mrs F and I were happy to be, especially from a distance.

© text & images Fubar2 2023