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Proms 2009: Prom 29 – Mendelssohn Symphony No.4 ‘Italian’ \ BBC Philharmonic

August 6, 2009

There were one or two raised eyebrows when I registered my unhappiness at discovering four unfamiliar faces standing in the row in front of me when I arrived in the arena.

Fortunately I had remained tactful by communicating this in the arena only by showing my most miserable face when their backs were to me. Later when me and my Proms cohorts stood guzzling cups of filter coffee in the arena bar did I verbally communicate my displeasure.

I really should have thought twice before saying anything. Half an hour before, attention had been drawn to my relatively low Proms-attendance rate (and considerably lower staying power when I do attend) especially given that I am a season ticket holder and a fan of the festival.

Season tickets guarantee you entry to the Proms up until 45 minutes before the concert begins and, more often than not, usually promises a reasonably close position to the stage too. Most of the season ticket holders are familiar faces (even if we don’t converse with one another every single night – or at all, in some cases).

Season ticket holders enter the Albert Hall through one door, while the day ticket holders enter through another, both groups usually standing in the arena on their respective sides. Unfamiliar faces sighted on the season ticket side are usually conspicuous. Heart-rates have been known to increase considerably when such a break with this unwritten rule is not observed.

Only last year took one Prommer to task for berating a Proms Virgin for edging forward into a row he wasn’t entitled to join. I was incensed. The young-looking Chinese gentleman seemed utterly bewildered by what was going on. I defended the new visitor to the Royal Albert Hall, keen to uphold the egalitarian nature of the Promming experience and to make sure his first visit to the Proms wasn’t a negative one. It worked.

A year later in the arena bar however, my feelings were a little different and, it seemed, my short-term memory was failing me spectacularly.

It was the Italian Symphony this evening. It is my favourite symphony. I never tire of listening to it. I was pleased with my position in the third row of the Proms and I was narked by the sudden and seemingly unauthorised arrival of the four day-ticket holders. It seemed their position threatened my projected enjoyment of the evening.

It was quickly pointed out by a friend that they were newcomers, that all newcomers were welcome at the Proms, that newcomers shouldn’t have a negative experience and that I had said exactly the same thing to another Prommer only the year before. I bit my lip and thought very carefully about what I was feeling and saying.

My friend was right, of course, just as I was last year. The ridiculously small and fundamentally insignificant position we staunchily defend in the arena is a measure of how dear we hold the Proms to our hearts. Anyone who challenges us by saying how the Proms is boring or irrelevant would be met with a very simple retort: don’t dismiss it until you’ve actually tried it. Far from wanting to shun people, those of us who love it (even those whose attendance rate may register disdain from ticket-holders with considerably more stamina) want more and more people to experience it the way we do.

Consequently, in those moments when unfamiliar faces appear in spaces we’ve perhaps unreasonably nominated our own, panic sets in. We’re conflicted. We don’t know what to do. Should we let it pass or should we say something? Is this promming experience for us as the individual or for everyone else around us? We may want every single concert to be utterly perfect but shouldn’t we also remember that new people need to experience that thrill close-up too?

It’s difficult but there is no debate. Of course everyone should experience it because when they do they’ll want more. When they want more, they’ll buy a season ticket. And when they do that they’ll be welcomed into the hive with open arms.

So, thanking my friends for the timely self-analysis they provoked, I made my way back to the arena, passing the group of newcomers tucking into a very attractive looking picnic (there were tomatoes and some smashing pieces of breaded chicken on the menu) before returning to my position with only a slight hint of self-satisfaction.

And when someone else was seen to be edging closer to the front row minutes before the concert began, I left it to someone else to say the difficult words before inviting the lonely newcomer to occupy a space beside me.

“Is this your first time?” I asked the confused looking man.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Then, welcome to the Proms!”

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