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Cheap Tickets Are the Best Tickets at the Proms

This season, 75 Proms will be performed at the Royal Albert Hall, and 15 of them will be world premieres of newly composed music.


The soprano Renée Fleming will appear at the Proms, a two-month classical music festival at the Royal Albert Hall in London,

Jacob Blickenstaff for The New York Times

Highlights of the festival include the star soprano Renée Fleming performing Strauss and Samuel Barber with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra; the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra making its Proms debut; a double tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, with the jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves celebrating what would have been their 100th birthday; and the first “Relaxed Prom,” when the hall will become an informal environment for people with autism, learning disabilities and partial or total hearing loss or blindness.

As in previous seasons, the crowds and fervor are such that it all seems “like a pop festival,” said the conductor Edward Gardner of Britain, who led the opening-night concert on July 14. “Everyone would love to syringe a bit of that energy out of the Proms and into normal concert life,” he said.

That energy may come in part from the average age of audience members, who are “a fair bit younger” than those who typically attend classical music concerts in Britain, according to David Pickard, the director of the Proms. “We continue to maintain this very accessible pricing, and that’s absolutely key,” he said. “Young people don’t have a lot of money.”

Another key to the festival’s success is its link to the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC covers half of the Proms’ annual budget, or 5 million pounds (roughly $6.5 million), with proceeds from Britain’s TV tax. The other £5 million share is generated by ticket sales.

The BBC also manages the Proms, ensuring high musical quality and some of the world’s top classical talent, and broadcasts all concerts live on the radio (and many on television). This means that the Proms reach far beyond the Royal Albert Hall and are “an integral part of British life,” according to Mr. Kenyon. He described how the author Alan Bennett, who grew up in northern England, reminisced in his memoirs about “sitting on his doorstep listening to the Proms on the radio.”

The very first Proms concert was on Aug. 10, 1895, at the newly constructed Queen’s Hall, with Queen Victoria still on the throne. Some 2,500 concertgoers heard a program that included the London premieres of works by Frédéric Chopin and Georges Bizet.


The concert series will also feature some nonclassical performers, including Dianne Reeves.

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

The festival had been started that year by the hall’s manager, the impresario Robert Newman, using inexpensive tickets to lure big audiences, a promenade format (letting audience members stand or walk around) and an accessible musical program. Eating, drinking and smoking were tolerated during performances.

By the mid-1920s, the festival was losing money and on the verge of collapse when the BBC stepped in. In 1927, the BBC took over the funding and running of the Proms.

World War II brought a bigger set of challenges. BBC funding dried up for a few years, and in May 1941, the Queen’s Hall was destroyed by German bombing, so the Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall, which became their permanent home.

In their first six decades or so, the Proms presented only British orchestras and conductors, and even today a degree of flag-waving prevails, particularly during the final concert of the season, when audiences wag little Union Jacks to the national anthem at the end.

But beginning in the 1960s, the Proms were internationalized and gradually broadened to include new contemporary classical music, early music and the occasional pop music performance.

The pop concerts have bothered some critics. “The corporation has come under fire for further ‘dumbing down’ the annual festival by booking a string of pop acts in a bid to attract younger audiences,” wrote the Daily Mail in 2014, when the Pet Shop Boys and the “Match of the Day” TV show theme were announced as being on the concert menu.


Tom Jones, also scheduled for The Proms.

Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

The decision to include Tom Jones this year (making his Proms debut singing soul tracks to celebrate Stax Records) led the classical music critic Norman Lebrecht to comment, “BBC Proms are disgraced by Tom Jones.”

“This commercial pop celebration is as low as the BBC has gone in dumbing down the Proms,” Mr. Lebrecht wrote on his Slipped Disc website.

Mr. Pickard said that there were always objections when the Proms program veered from the expected, but that it was important to put things in perspective.

“There are about 90 concerts, 80 of which, at least, are core classical music,” he said. “We’ve got oodles of Shostakovich, Beethoven, Mozart and Sibelius. It’s not as though the world has come to an end because Tom Jones has come to sing at the Proms.”

The bigger question is: How can the festival ensure that it will still be here in another 100 years? The link with a publicly funded institution has to be maintained, according to the Barbican’s Mr. Kenyon.

“The threat to the Proms would be to completely commercialize them or leave them to market forces,” Mr. Kenyon said. “That would not produce something of the incredibly high quality, carefully curated series that we see at the moment.”

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