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Proms 2019

The Proms is about the music - the symphonies and concertos, the world premieres and old favourites. But it's as much about the people: from the musicians desperate to perform to the cleaners who get The Royal Albert Hall ready for them; the piano tuner who makes sure the concert actually sounds good to the security guard who keeps the occasional rowdy oboist in check.

On 24 August - the hottest day of the year, and just a few days after the Olympics closing ceremony in Brazil - the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra came to London for two Proms, one starting at 7:30pm, the other at 10.15pm. Here are the stories of the orchestra, the Proms' staff and those of some Prommers, who give the concerts an atmosphere you experience absolutely nowhere else.

Michelle Lewis, catering manager

"What do people eat? What we give them!"

Michael Bacon, balancer, BBC Radio 3

"It's my job to arrange the music to put the listener in the best seat of the house. I started at 8:30am, about two hours before rehearsal, putting mics on stage. So in the hall there's now about 120 mics I could use tonight.

"You have to take into account where people are listening. Some people will be listening with the best hi-fi, others are in the car or the kitchen. It's all about dynamic range. An orchestra has a range of over 100 decibels. We can broadcast about 30. But if you're in the kitchen you only want about 10.

"One game I do play sometimes is when you're putting an instrument in a stereo picture, you can do it by guessing if they'd be better to the left or to the right. Politically speaking."

Christian Sanchez Lopez, cleaner

"I'm studying at uni in Valencia - biomedical sciences - but my car broke. Someone jumped a light and hit me. The car was old, so I preferred to save money and travel rather than repair it, and a friend told me about working here. I'll get a new car at some point - maybe a Corsa; nothing too high-class."

Mick Morris, backstage security

"Oh, I work all over the place. I look after players from Arsenal. I look after a Russian billionaire. This is more laid back than the billionaire, obviously. But we've had some mad Proms with, like, Nigel Kennedy and the Radio 1 Prom with Pete Tong last year that was more like a gig - more aggro and people trying to get in without tickets, trying to get to the free drink backstage and that. But because we're always on it straight away, we don't get many issues.

"Nine seasons I've been doing this, but, to be honest with you, it all sounds the same to me. Everyone on my team says things like, 'Oh, this one's good.' But I just don't get it. I grew up listening to indie."

Peter Pas, second viola

"I remember coming here in 2012 for our first Proms. It was so different to a normal concert. There was this huge crowd waiting outside for the tickets and then seeing people standing inside the hall and how close they were to us. That took some getting used to, but they were so warm and so enthusiastic - such a great energy.

"I'm just really looking forward to playing here again. But we're playing a double concert - a regular concert and then a late night one with Brazilian music - so it's a physically demanding and mentally demanding day. I'll take a rest in a minute, a little nap. There are other ways to relax, but sometimes they wear you out, you know."

Plamen Vasilev, barman in the Artists' Bar

"It's different working in the Artists' Bar to the others. Everyone who comes in here is a musician and they're really open-minded. They don't drink now - it's 4pm. But at the end of the concert, they allow themselves to have some freedom. I can't tell you who're the heaviest drinkers - no one brings their instruments in. The cellists, maybe?"

Nigel Polmear, piano tuner, Steinway & Sons

"We pre-tune the pianos before they get here, but things always move and change. It's very humid today, and they put air conditioning on in the hall, and they took one of the lids off earlier, so the hot stage lights affected things too. The poor old pianos didn't stand a chance.

"The whole crux of working here is you get a small window of opportunity because it's all happening on stage - you've got BBC personnel setting up cameras and microphones, and orchestras putting up stands, harpists who want to tune up and timpanists too. You kind of have to steer your way through it and be patient.

"But that's the thing: it's all live. All happening. I've worked at all the other London concert halls as part of my job but this place is a bit different. I'll be on standby when the performance is on, in case something happens, but touch wood, it won't."

Joe McCulloch, TV producer, BBC

"I've just spent an hour or two going through the scripts with the presenters, so they put them into their own words and feel comfortable with them. Surprising things happen frequently. Last week, doing the National Youth Orchestra, the conductor didn't come out as there was a problem with their mic. You have to have extra material ready, or the presenter just has to busk it, but they're professionals - they always say something that's decent, intelligent and on message.

"Outside the Proms, I work in children's TV. What's worse, musicians or children? I love working with children so think musicians are more challenging."

Emmanuele Baldini, concertmaster

"Yes, I have photos of my family in my violin case. I'm going to call them in a minute. I speak with them everyday, especially my daughter, she's one-and-a-half. Luckily, today we have WhatsApp and Skype, many possibilities. Twenty years ago it was much worse.

"My role as a concertmaster is very complicated. There are many things where I really help the conductor: trying to help her find the colours, the phrasing, the atmosphere, she wants to create in the music. And during the concert, I help her by trying to be as clear as possible with my gestures, showing my colleagues the attack of the bow on the strings, the character of the music, the dynamics. I'm like her interpreter. But then I'm also just the leader of the orchestra. So psychologically there are some moments when my colleagues feel more nervous and my job is to convince them everything is okay.

"Of course there is a pressure tonight - we're in such an important hall, such an important festival. But there's actually less pressure than in other places. It's less formal here, more friendly, and it helps us to give our best."

Janke Van Uffelen, steward

"I find the Prommers incredible - the ones who're here every day, before 9am. It doesn’t matter if the Prom is popular or not, they just like to be here all day to make sure they're at the front. And that's basically their summer. Two months. The Royal Albert Hall becomes their life. It is their life. I mean, I love theatre, but I don't know if I would have that passion to do something similar for two months."

Robert Samuel and Zoe McKee, Prommers

Zoe: "We love the Proms. We come every year and it's £5 tickets. Actually, it's £6 this year. That extra pound's crippling. We can take the afternoon off work, queue up, have a little picnic, then go and watch the music. I actually said to everyone at work today, 'You need to get to it. It's a great day out.'

"The Proms eccentrics are fantastic. They have their own section in the arena. I’ll probably become one in a few years.

"We chose today as I didn't have a clinic this afternoon - I'm a nurse - so it worked, and we've heard the pianist is pretty badass. We were expecting the queue to be longer, but it's 31 degrees, so I guess people are worried about their health."

Bruce Tarlton, Prommer

"I've been living in Spain for 25 years - I'm a primary school teacher there - but I literally come back just for the Proms, for two months, every year. It's really unique in the world. You don't get this concentrated number of concerts anywhere: this diversity, these audiences, this quality.

"The first time I came was probably about 1980. I would have been about 15. Just heading here with some friends. I've no idea what we saw, but I can remember Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler's fifth in 1987. That was just wonderful. I was hooked."

Zachary Klein and Chanelle Enriquez, Prommers

Chanelle: "We're from California. But I'm studying abroad in France - business in Lyon - and we just came to London for two days. Our hostel's round the corner and we were walking by and wanted to see what was playing. There's Brazilian music. It sounds cool."

Suzi Mandra, "nice expensive ticket" holder

"Am I excited? Can you not tell by my grin? The Proms has been on my list for years. I've been in London now for two years and I didn't get tickets last year so I thought, 'This time, I’m going to get myself a nice expensive ticket.' I'm not Promming. I like to sit down.

"It's just me, myself and I tonight. A date with me. I took a friend to a concert back in May and she always talks about this time Suzi took her to an awful concert, so I decided I wasn't going to do that again. I just really want to enjoy the music."

Ilia Laporev, cellist

"This is my first time playing the Proms and I'm very excited. The first time I saw a video of it was when I was 15 or something and I immediately wanted to be here. The hall's amazing. It's a huge adventure - like a dream coming true. I'm not nervous. I'm outside smoking before the concert, yes, but that's because it's a bad habit."

Ian Skelly, BBC Radio 3 presenter

"I was here this morning for the rehearsal. That's always very useful for any presenter as sometimes you hear pieces you've never heard before, and you pick up an awful lot of what the conductor does with the orchestra and that goes into your presentation.

"We don't have the biggest box in the world, but once you're sitting down it's fine, you just can't get out. Last season, I came to the end of a very long day - a very long concert - and just as we were about to hand back to the teams at Broadcasting House, they had to evacuate for a fire alarm. So I then sat here for another hour on my own, in this empty hall, filling, while they desperately tried to work out how to play a piece of music as there was no CD machine. You do have to make sure you're in a comfortable position in case that happens.

"But that's the joy of the job. I don't wish things to go wrong, but that's when you rise to the challenge. That's what radio's about."

Déborah Santos, violinist

"My father passed away when I was four and my mother had to suddenly start supporting us. She'd work the whole day and then study the whole night. So this was very stressful for her, and she also developed a huge depression and my home life was difficult.

"But luckily she felt we should all play music and she enrolled us in the free music school in Brasília and that became my family, my whole world. Music was the most important thing in my life, the only thing that mattered. And once I stepped into the music room with my violin there were no problems anymore. The only problems I had to deal with were ones I could fix, like intonation. Music gave me a sense of dignity and self worth, to be so strong that I could fight for everything I believed in.

"So I really know the impact that music can have in someone's life and it would be amazing to inspire people like that tonight. Why not? I know we will play well. My colleagues have been talking about this concert and preparing for it as if we were going to Lollapalooza or Ibiza or something. I feel like a rock star, so I might as well play like one with all the enthusiasm and joy in my being."

Gabriela Montero, pianist

"This is my first performance at the Proms: it's a massively exciting place. The tradition of it and all that comes with it. But I try to see every concert as a musical experience. It doesn't matter what the venue is or who I'm playing for; it's just the music that's important.

"There's no set routine for a day like this. It's impossible. I also have two kids and I travel all the time, so can't really to stick to anything. If you're not flexible in this profession then you just become neurotic.

"I'm known for being political now and I always want to talk about what's happening in Venezuela - this isn't a moment to be proud of my country - but I won't say anything tonight. I feel very sensitive to the places I play in and the people I'm with and it doesn't feel appropriate. But I did have some earrings made in the colours of the Venezuelan flag, which are pretty big and I'll be wearing them for my encore. That's my way of saying I'm thinking of Venezuelans."

Catherine Blackwell, lead event manager, The Royal Albert Hall

"I've been in since 7am for load-in and I won't leave until midnight. I'm a classically trained musician, a flautist and bassoonist. I used to watch the Proms as a child with my dad, which is why I came to The Royal Albert Hall, because I really wanted to work on them. He only passed away a couple of years ago, so he knew that I was working here. But I'm probably doing it more for myself now - it’s what I enjoy - than for any sentimental reason.

"I haven't ever had any problems with the star musicians. They always have a stigma for their arrogance and everything needs to be perfect, but it's more the stage managers who have to deal with that if it happens. There was a pianist a few weeks ago who had to have all his wheels facing the same direction. I just said to the stage manager, 'Good luck!'"

Marin Alsop, conductor and music director, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra

"I love the make-up process. It's quiet attention, like being searched at the airport.

"I have to be honest, I didn't know the Proms until I started working in the UK. I was a sort of ignorant American. Still am, I'm afraid. But I do remember my first time vividly as it was with the Bournemouth Symphony and there was such a lot of hoopla. I remember sitting quietly in the dark after all the press had gone thinking, 'Wow! This is really something.' I still get that feeling now. It's a little bit like seeing something through the eyes of your children, seeing my musicians so excited to be here.

"I don't have a whole lot of time to celebrate after we've played, as tomorrow my flight leaves at 6am to Lucerne, where I'm going to do a masterclass for some young women conductors, so I’ll celebrate with them - by yelling at them, probably."

Barney, who lives in a caravan with his owner Jennie by the BBC's broadcasting trucks to make sure no one breaks in at night

Jennie: "We got him on our way home from the Proms last year. My daughter's got two dachshunds and we just decided they're lovely dogs and it was the right size for us - he's ideal for the caravan.

"He gets an enormous amount of attention. He's got a day-glo jacket with his name on and the first time we put it on him, he was like, 'I'm not having this.' But as soon as he found it really got him all the girls, he started asking for it. He wants to take it out on patrol all the time now."

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