Going Promming: Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story

A review of what turned out to be a brilliant outing to see the music of West Side Story at the BBC Proms.

Having been predominantly a jazz concert attendee, going Promming to see John Wilson conducting his eponymous orchestra was an entirely new experience. With the BBC Proms this year holding a number of concerts to celebrate 100 years since the birth of Leonard Bernstein, I felt it would be a memorable experience to attend John Wilson’s Orchestra’s performance of West Side Story.

Having only decided that I wanted to go a month before the concert, I incorrectly thought I’d simply be able to buy tickets online. Unfortunately, I was greeted by a “tickets not available” notice on the Royal Albert Hall’s website. But wait, what is the BBC Proms’ mantra? “No Prom is ever sold out”. This is of course a reference to possibility, for those with enough dedication and patience, of simply turning up on the day of the Prom and purchasing £6 tickets on the door.

After spending time researching Promming protocol before the day, I found that the guidance available online was inconsistent. As matinee concerts at the Proms are a rarity, I could only find reference about what time to arrive for evening concerts. It was made clear online that it is only permitted to leave the queue for 30 minutes during the day. It was also clear that raffle tickets for concerts, which show you your position in the queue could be obtained from the Proms Stewards from 9am onwards. Some sources recommended arriving early in the morning, whilst others said that for most concerts one can arrive just an hour or two before the concert. However, I knew this concert would be popular, so I decided to arrive at 10am. Once at the front of the venue I approached one of the stewards in their red uniform who asked me whether I wanted a raffle ticket for the Gallery or the Arena. I asked for an Arena ticket and was given the number 378. As the raffle ticket numbering started at 100, it implied to me there were 278 people ahead of me in the queue. They then said I should return at 2pm (1.5 hours before the concert) to form the queue for the matinee or at 6:30pm for the evening performance. What was slightly confusing for me was that there was not a separate type of raffle ticket for the matinee/evening concert, meaning the raffle ticket number did not give me a proper idea of where I would be in the queue for the matinee! I was also pleasantly surprised when they made it clear that I did not have to wait outside the venue for 4 hours. This enabled me to enjoy the weather and relax in Hyde Park for a few hours.

At 2pm everyone began to sort themselves into their places based on their raffle ticket numbers. It was a very orderly and civilised process. The doors did not actually open until 2:30pm and at this point the queue started moving forwards and Prommers could then buy their ticket once they got through the door.

The concert itself was truly brilliant. The orchestra were sublime and the acoustic in the Arena created an electric atmosphere amongst the standing Prommers. Rather than just music there was some on-stage acting which covered the crucial moments of the show. Having seen West Side Story on Broadway a number of years ago, I felt far more captivated by this rendition. My position in the Hall and the brilliant sound of John Wilson’s Orchestra, combined with the excellent singing and acting led by Mikaela Bennett (Maria) and Ross Lekites (Tony) made for a fun afternoon.

In my opinion, the least convenient part of the whole Promming experience was not the queuing, or having to stand for the concert, but in fact the intermission. In a sense, it felt unnecessary with a particularly short Act II. I suppose this was down to the way that many in the Arena choose to sit in the already crowded area during the break, making many Prommers, myself included, feel rather claustrophobic. Had I not prommed that day, I may have felt differently about the intermission!