Inside the Proms - Petroc Trelawny's backstage view
Petroc in the Radio 3 box at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo © BBC Chris Christodoulou Radio 3 and BBC TV presenter Petroc Trelawny will be blogging every week during the Proms season. Here's the first of his despatches ...
Petroc in the Radio 3 box at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo © BBC Chris Christodoulou
Radio 3 and BBC TV presenter Petroc Trelawny will be blogging every week during the Proms season. Here's the first of his despatches ...
May I introduce you to a windowless room in the bowels of the Royal Albert Hall? I’m writing this in the Radio 3 Proms office, where a small and slick team gathers each day to get the Proms on air. Rob Cowan is here at the moment, sitting in the corner reading a new biography of George Szell. Rob is presenting the first Prom tonight, the Radio France Philharmonic, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. His producer Emma Bloxham is tinkering with their script, and editing a clip of the brothers Capuçon.
Senior studio manager Sue Thomas is poring over Stravinsky - she’ll be on the faders in a truck out the back, working hard to ensure listeners get the very best hi-fi sound. ‘How many microphones do you have?’ I ask her. ‘It’s a trade secret,’ she laughs, then says, ‘it’s at least forty. Rite of Spring is a big challenge, there’s a huge dynamic range to cope with.' ‘Yes, from deathly quiet to deafeningly loud!’, Rob chips in.
Fellow studio manager Gill Drabble walks through the door with a radio microphone for me. The Belcea Quartet and cellist Valentin Erben are giving the second Prom tonight; Late Night concerts see the presenter leaving the Radio 3 box, and introducing the concert from the stage. Tonight it’s just one work, but it’s one of the masterpieces of all chamber music, Schubert’s Quintet, written a matter of weeks before his death in 1828. Judging by the rehearsal, the sound of a quintet playing alone in the Albert Hall will be amazing - extraordinarily intimate considering the size of the place. That’s part of the magic of the Proms; more than a thousand doing the Gothic Symphony, then 48 hours later, five chamber musicians filling the same great space.
I love the atmosphere of Late Night Proms - it’s completely different to the early evening concerts. Some will be packed; Nigel Kennedy playing Bach for example; others will see a very different crowd squeezing in - the World Routes Academy Prom, or the Spaghetti Western Orchestra are bound to include a larger than normal share of first-timers. I remember introducing a new music Prom last season that had about 500 people in the audience. That’s a capacity crowd at some venues, but barely dents the Royal Albert Hall. The empty seats didn’t mean it was any less exciting as a concert, with Prommers having the space to lie down in the arena, and the seated audience able to spread themselves around the stalls. I looked up at one point and saw a man alone in the great spread of the circle. It may not have been packed, but it was an unforgettable night for all of us there.
The Albert Hall is great late at night; it feels a little subversive waiting for a Late Night Prom. The crowds disperse, you can have a drink and relax knowing there’s more to come. ‘It’s a bit like listening to the radio under the covers as a child,’ Rob’s just commented. ‘Huge fun, exciting and somehow a bit naughty at the same time’.
This season sees another feature for those who want to linger longer in SW7 - Proms Plus Lates. Once a week, at weekends, the Elgar Room is transformed into a nightclub. The room has had a makeover this season, and looks terrific, with soft lighting, tables and chairs set out cabaret-style, and a house pianist tinkling away on a red piano, formerly owned by Elton John, no less. The bar does a good trade, and then we’ve live music and poetry. On the first night the Will Gibson Band (mainly graduates from Trinity) played jazz, and performance poet Laura Dockrill bought tears to everyone’s eyes with a bitter/funny poem about weekend dads. I predict that tickets for Proms Plus Lates are going to become pretty hot; they are free, but can only be obtained by ticket holders from Door 6 during the interval of that nights Prom. If you are coming to Friday night’s Prom with the BBC Phil, I’ll see you in the Elgar room after.
Late Night Update
The Schubert Quintet finished ten minutes ago and I’m alone now in the Radio Three office. The roar of air-conditioning and computer equipment is almost deafening after the extraordinary silence in which the audience – maybe as many as 2000 of us - listened to the Belceas and Valentin Erben play. A real Proms event, the quartet spotlit on a dark stage, Corina Belcea-Fisher’s brilliant crimson dress providing the sole burst of colour. And what a performance - but I’ll leave to judge that for yourself. Listen here if you missed it live.