The joy of listening live at the BBC Proms

Jon Jacob, writer of the Thoroughly Good Blog and producer of the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast explains why the BBC Proms is the best place to start to discover classical music

I first attended a Prom concert in 1991 with friends I’d spent the summer playing music with in the Suffolk Youth Orchestra. Keen to relive our own experience of performing Mozart’s Requiem at Snape Maltings earlier that year, selected wind players, brass players, and string players all honed in on one Prom featuring Mozart’s much-loved work. We queued all day to hear the work we’d all enjoyed playing only months before.

The day was hot and long and, by the time the front of house staff let is in, the interior of the Royal Albert Hall was magical. Our dedication starting to queue early in the day had paid off too: me, Tim, Chris, Gig, and Ali, had managed to secure a second row position in the Arena, a handful of metres away from the edge of the stage. We stood within reach of proper grown ups playing music we knew inside out. It was almost as though we were playing the music ourselves.

Spurred on by the experience, two days later I attended another Prom. This time it was the National Youth Orchestra playing Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. I still have the programme from the day.

Looking through the programme now I’m amazed at some of the names I recognise. In the violins (in addition to the school friend Rebecca Livermore who I’d gone to see play who now plays in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) names include Katherine Hunka, Hannah Perowne, Matthew Truscott, Veronica Freeman, and Maxine Kwok (now of LSO fame). I remember the concert being a high-octane affair executed by a crowd of musicians on stage. The atmosphere looking at the stage from the Arena was electrifying.

Get as close to the stage as possible

Proximity in live music is everything for the audience. The closer you are to the action the more visceral the experience is going to be. Detail promises excitement; proximity guarantees detail. Get as close to the stage as you possibly can.

It’s not always been the case. Sometimes proximity can result in an experience so overwhelming as to be very nearly uncomfortable. This was certainly the case at the London Sinfonietta’s performance of Messiaen at the Roundhouse a few years back. If ever there was a concert that absolutely should have been put on at the Royal Albert Hall that was one of them. Music that commands it be played the loudest it possibly can needs a big space and a distant view to create a theatrical experience.

Other similarly vivid memories include the feel of the cold stone on my bare legs as me, Hannah, Richard and Simon sat in the gallery high up above the action listening to the technicolour excitement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Or listening to a pal playing a Mahler symphony in an international orchestra and as the applause broke out all around turning to his wife sat next to me and hugging her, both of us with tears in our eyes.

Our unexpected emotion wasn’t something only experienced at the Proms. Classical music has the power, assuming all the conditions are right in the moment, to do just this. To move. Your most lasting memories stand a good chance of being created at the Royal Albert Hall and specifically at a Prom concert.

This is one of the absolute (and consistent) joys of the BBC Proms. Its home – the Royal Albert Hall – is a grand theatrical space that plays host to various differently scaled performances. It feeds off grand symphonic works, almost daring orchestras to cram as many players onto its stage. It also welcomes the solo performer, promising epic drama with an empty stage and a single spotlight. The Royal Albert Hall does drama well. 

The physical space plays a significant part in the experience of any classical music performance at the BBC Proms. That’s why being there is integral and why there is on Thoroughly Good a selection of must-attend concerts and recommended seating for each event. The basic rule of thumb is simple: get as close to the action as you possibly can. If that means logging on on the day of the concert in order to get in the digital queue for an arena ticket and promming, then so be it. 

When you see from close range a bow on a string and feel the sound that emanates you’ll get the thrill. Recorded music tries hard, but it really doesn’t cut it in comparison. Something magical happens when you see, hear and feel at the same time.   

There were a number of years when I didn’t return to the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms. It wasn’t until I ended up working at the BBC and witnessed how colleagues put the season together (and then worked on it) that I came to appreciate it on a different level. Here was a mammoth broadcast event – 70-odd concerts spanning the summer, every one broadcast live on Radio 3, and an entire season trying to offer something for everyone whilst introducing something new to someone. It was often in the firing line for criticism for not being what the critic thought the Proms should be – a metaphor for public service broadcasting. 

That dissonance still exists today. Amid the culture wars, the Proms are often used as a handy stick to beat both the classical music industry and the BBC with. But it remains a valuable shop front for the UK and international classical music industry. The BBC Proms is an opportunity to look in on the classical music world. It’s not exhaustive nor necessarily comprehensive. Perhaps in some respects, it’s a starting point. All it asks of you the audience member is a sense of curiosity and excitement. Come with an open mind.

There are no guarantees – that’s the joy of live

Not every concert will delight. Even if you think it might or someone tells you it will be excellent there are no guarantees to live unamplified performance. That’s not a failing of classical music, that is part of the joy of it. There are so many variables that risk the live experience. That is what makes live music so utterly addictive an experience.

Many who fear stepping into the concert hall have very high expectations, shaped in part by the on-demand lives we all live. Any concert demands the audience takes the risk of ending up disappointed, or (if you’re more of a glass half full kind of person) diving in in pursuit of creating a lasting memory. Take the risk. Take the plunge.

On the Thoroughly Good Proms homepage you’ll find recommendations of concerts to attend, concerts to listen to, and even concerts to watch on TV.

I’ve selected these largely because of their potential for spectacle. It’s my belief that being in a large space surrounded by other audience members looking on at the detail going on on stage is possibly the best way to get the bug like I have. So, inevitably, the choice of repertoire is biased to what I’ve been drawn to – big symphonic works.

I’ve also included a list of concerts to listen to on the radio. Listening live isn’t the cop-out some regular Prommers led me to believe it was when I secured my first season ticket back in 2007. The sound mix broadcast live from the Albert Hall consistently conveys something of the excitement in the space – perhaps, even more – in a way that triggers my emotion. It is, long before we get on to the music, old-school radio where the pictures are better than real life.

Jon Jacob writes the Thoroughly Good Blog and produces Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast

Discover concerts in the Thoroughly Good Guide to the BBC Proms