Britain's Prom concerts keep classic charm after 120 years



The London-based Proms are celebrating their 120th year and the world's biggest classical music festival continues to draw in crowds by mixing top performers with accessible ticket prices.

Star soloists and concert-goers alike hail the atmosphere at the BBC Promenade Concerts, with their quirks, traditions and sense of occasion.

Staged at the 5,500-capacity Royal Albert Hall, the circular, domed 1870s Italianate masterpiece in London, the eight-week series of concerts are firmly entrenched in the British cultural landscape.

Part of their charm is the tradition of "Promming": turning up on the day for the 1,350 standing places costing £5 ($7.80, seven euros).

"Prommers" can therefore watch from right in front of the orchestra.

"The good thing is that the best position in the house is the cheapest," Lord of the Rings actor Ian McKellen told AFP after a performance of interludes from Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes".

"Five pounds, compared to 60 pounds where the Queen sits," he said, pointing to the boxes at the back. "It's a whole reversal of the norm."

- Sense of occasion -

Promming veterans and first-timers alike form an orderly queue for the standing tickets.

"I saw the Proms as a child on television so I'm quite excited to be here," said Leanne Schmidt, from Yorkshire in northern England.

Daniela Cechova, a psychologist from Slovakia's capital Bratislava, brought her 15-year-old daughter Nela.

"I wanted my daughter to experience the same experience I did 15 years ago. I came three times in five days. It was breathtaking. The music and the building are fantastic," she said.

Christian Holt, a Londoner, has been promming around 20 times, drawn by the "variety and quality" of the concerts, plus the cheap tickets on the day of the concerts.

He said: "The acoustics are OK. I've heard better. That's the one thing I'm not massively keen on."

Naik Lashermes, 30, a Frenchwoman living in London, has gone Promming a dozen times in five years.

"It's the quality of the musicians, plus the fact that it's virtually for free. It's the ambience of a festival in the world of classical music," she said.

The red-upholstered hall rises 135 feet (41 metres) from the arena floor, through the stalls, three tiers of boxes, a circle and then the standing gallery at the top. The stage thrusts out into the arena.

Some Prom-goers go straight from work with their briefcases, some don cocktail dresses for the occasion, while others wear t-shirts and baseball caps.

Some stand arms folded, soaking in the music, while the more romantic types put arms around their partners.

People of all ages and nationalities make up the audience, while latecomers are not admitted until an interval.

- Broadcast worldwide -

The Proms are back on BBC World Service radio after a five-year break, with six programmes mixing performances with themes and topics from the concert series.

The 2015 season began on July 17 and culminates on September 12 with the traditional Last Night of the Proms, a patriotic singalong and a unique celebration of Britishness.

On August 10, the 120th anniversary of the Proms first concert, British star violinist Nicola Benedetti performed Erich Wolfgang Korngold's "Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35" (1945).

Afterwards, there were shouts of "Bravo!", while some even ululated. The rumble of foot-stamping for an encore spread throughout the hall.

Benedetti said playing the Proms was "the best thing, ever".

"It's like no other in terms of the strength of the feeling coming from the audience," she told AFP.

"It's not really comparable to anything else, just in terms of the collectiveness.

"You don't feel like you're just giving something to people, but that they're giving back to you."

At the stage door afterwards, orchestra members bid each other farewell and eager music students quiz performers for technique tips.

Eva Malmbolm, from Sweden, a viola player in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, said playing the Proms was "a bit of a pressure cooker".

"It really focuses you when you realise there's 5,000 people staring at you," she told AFP.

"It's electric, an amazing atmosphere and a very exciting place to play. I don't think anybody leaves without a smile on their face."





Pope announces new football match for peace PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 03 February 2016 20:03



Pope Francis on Wednesday revealed plans for a new "match for peace" as he met Ronaldinho and other football stars at the Vatican.

The charity match will be staged at Rome's Olympic Stadium on May 29, the day after the Champions League final in Milan.

The first match for peace took place in 2014 and featured Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona and a host of other top players or former players.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 03 February 2016 20:05
Adult coloring book craze booms in US PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 04 February 2016 17:25


Intricate adult coloring books are the latest lifestyle craze to grip the United States, generating millions of fans, booming sales and libraries falling over themselves to host workshops.

Walk into any New York bookstore, and you'll find them artfully laid out on tables or filling entire shelves. Buyers can choose from Sanskrit patterns, urban landscapes, butterflies and flowers all offering "stress relieving patterns." The latest fashion? The swear word version.

Amazon sells hundreds of them, including nine on the top 20 bestseller list. Fans post their finished designs and swap tips on Facebook or Pinterest.

Dover Publications, which prints dozens of coloring books, decreed August 2 as National Coloring Book Day, sponsoring parties and hosting an online group discussion board for tips on how to throw a successful bash at home.

"It calms us down to be coloring," Linda Turner, a licensed creative arts psychotherapist in Manhattan, explained of the trend born in Europe.

"If you are really with it, if you are really in the presence of coloring the colors and just being with the art, it is a wonderful way to support calming and presence and relaxation," she told AFP.

Turner said that while children are willing to explore and experiment, adults are not necessarily so comfortable with their creativity.

"These coloring books, they look adult, they look sophisticated... and they are going to create, and they are going to be present in the moment and have fun... In ways that are safe for them," she added.


Last Updated on Thursday, 04 February 2016 17:27
European shares rise with Wall Street in choppy trade PDF Print E-mail
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Friday, 05 February 2016 13:07


European and US shares mostly firmed Thursday despite another drop in oil prices ahead of Friday's eagerly anticipated US jobs report for January.

Stocks in London outperformed other bourses, rising 1.1 percent after the Bank of England slashed its economic forecast, kept ultra-low interest rates in place and hinted at a slower time-frame for lifting rates.

In the US, the S&P 500 finished up 0.2 percent despite veering into negative territory a couple of times in a choppy session, as oil prices closed lower and US data showed a drop in fourth-quarter productivity and a rise in weekly jobless claims.

"Things are mixed but the stock market is actually performing surprisingly well, given the downbeat economic news we received this morning," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank.

"The market seems pretty resilient."

Investors were looking ahead to Friday's US employment report, which is expected to show the US economy added 188,000 jobs, down from a December surge of 292,000. A weak report will be seen as further denting the prospects for the Federal Reserve to lift interest rates.


Last Updated on Friday, 05 February 2016 13:10
Liverpool target Teixeira becomes China's latest record transfer PDF Print E-mail
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Friday, 05 February 2016 13:17



Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeira became China's third record signing in just over a week on Friday when Jiangsu Suning snapped him up for 50 million euros ($56 million) -- following earlier interest from English giants Liverpool.

China's latest monster move came only three days after Guangzhou Evergrande paid 42 million euros for Atletico Madrid's Jackson Martinez, and nine days after Jiangsu's 28-million-euro purchase of Ramires from Chelsea.

The hat-trick of record deals pushed China's spending in its current transfer period, which closes on February 26, to 258.9 million euros, higher than the 247.3 million euros spent by English clubs in the now-closed January transfer window, according to the transfermarkt website which tracks the sport's commercial dealings.


Teixeira's signing on a four-year deal from Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk also shows China now has the clout to attract players in the prime of their careers. The 26-year-old had been linked with a move to Liverpool, one of the world's top teams.

"Everyone has always known that I want to stay in Europe and transfer to a club in the English league. But unfortunately all the offers I received from them weren't serious and didn't contain anything specific," Teixeira told the Shakhtar Donetsk website.

"I now received a serious offer from China. I am of course moving there."



Last Updated on Friday, 05 February 2016 13:20
Timbuktu recovers its mausoleums, risen from ruins PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 06 February 2016 20:26



Mali's fabled city of Timbuktu on Thursday celebrated the recovery of its historic mausoleums, destroyed during an Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 and rebuilt thanks to UN cultural agency UNESCO.

The dusty desert city formally received the keys to the precious shrines to Muslim saints dating back to medieval times at a ceremony consecrating their return that was held in the legendary Djingareyber mosque.

Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents wrecked 14 of the city's iconic earthen shrines built during Timbuktu's 15th and 16th century golden age as an economic, intellectual and spiritual centre.

To mark their reconstruction, five heads of cattle were ritually sacrificed just after dawn, ahead of a reading of the entire Muslim holy book the Koran and the handing of the keys to the families in charge of their care.

"This day celebrates the remarkable and courageous work accomplished to recover your dignity," UNESCO's Lazare Eloundou told the officials, diplomats and religious and traditional dignitaries attending the ceremony.



UNESCO has listed the city as a world heritage site in danger due to "its important role of commercial, spiritual and cultural centre on the southern trans-Saharan trading route, and its traditional characteristic construction techniques."

Islamist fighters destroyed the centuries-old shrines after seizing the city in April 2012, swiftly implementing a version of Islamic law which forced women to wear veils and set whipping and stoning as punishment for transgressions.

- 'Idolatrous' -

They considered the shrines, as well as priceless ancient manuscripts, to be idolatrous.

But in January 2013 they fled the city, driven out by a French-led international force which is still stationed in Mali but has failed to take control of remote northern reaches of the vast desert nation.


Last Updated on Saturday, 06 February 2016 20:29
Vulnerable Asia fears Zika virus outbreak PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 03 February 2016 17:54



Densely packed slums, rampant mosquitoes and a history of rapidly spreading infections make Asia particularly vulnerable to the devastating Zika virus, posing a massive challenge for the region, health experts warn.

Thailand confirmed Tuesday that a man contracted the mosquito-borne infection, blamed for a surge in the number of brain-damaged babies in South America, while Indonesia has also reported a domestic case.

The cases in Asia come as top US health authorities confirmed this week a patient in Texas contracted the Zika virus through sexual transmission, fuelling fears the disease may spread rapidly.

Officials in India worry it could be next, noting that the Zika and dengue fever-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito thrives in the high-density communities of its teeming cities, where sanitation is often poor.

"In India particularly there is a great threat of the Zika virus spreading quickly given the presence of the Aedes mosquito and favourable environment," said Om Shrivastav, an infectious diseases specialist.


"It would definitely be a big challenge for Asian countries to control the spread of the virus... considering high population in the region," added Shrivastav, who is based in Mumbai, home to Dharavi, Asia's biggest slum.

More than half of Mumbai's 20 million inhabitants live in slums -- at least one million reside in Dharavi alone -- enduring cramped conditions, poor ventilation and a lack of toilets.

Every summer monsoon, heavy rains lash Mumbai for four months, flooding parts of the city, including the slums' maze of alleyways, which become fertile breeding grounds for mosquitos and lead to a massive spike in tropical diseases.

Soumya Swaminathan, director general of the Indian Council for Medical Research, warned against panicking but said a surge of dengue cases worldwide recently, was a cause for concern.

"(Because of) the way dengue has spread over the last several years across continents and across countries, (and with) Zika being a mosquito borne illness, there is a potential for spread," she told Indian news channel NDTV.


Zika, which was first identified in Uganda in 1947, causes relatively mild flu-like symptoms and a rash.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) said it "strongly suspected" the Zika virus of being responsible for a rapid rise in cases of microcephaly, a condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain.

Latin American countries, particularly Brazil, have reported a leap in cases of microcephaly since the Zika outbreak was declared in the region last year.

The UN-body has declared the situation a "public health emergency of international concern" and has created a global Zika response unit to contain the virus.

WHO expert Anthony Costello has stressed there is no reason to believe the crisis would remain limited to Latin America, where 25 countries so far have reported Zika cases.



Last Updated on Wednesday, 03 February 2016 17:58
Britain pledges $1.74 bn in aid for Syria and neighbours PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 04 February 2016 17:28


The British government announced £1.2 billion (1.6 million euros, $1.74 billion) in aid for war-torn Syria and its neighbours on Thursday, ahead of a donors' conference in London.


"More money is needed to tackle this crisis and it is needed now," Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement announcing the pledge, which will fund education, jobs and humanitarian relief in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

The promise amounts to an extra £1.2 billion, to be spent between 2016 and 2020, to address "the world's biggest humanitarian crisis", Cameron's office said. Britain has already agreed to spend £1.12 billion on the region.

It comes as world leaders are due to gather in London to try to raise $9 billion for the millions of Syrians affected by five years of civil war and to address an acute refugee crisis.


Last Updated on Thursday, 04 February 2016 17:31
Coffee diet woos Americans with 'Bulletproof' pledge PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 31 January 2016 15:10



A new coffee diet claiming to help lose weight and improve IQ is gaining a major following in the United States -- and raising eyebrows among doctors skeptical of its benefits.

Dave Asprey, the founder and CEO of the "Bulletproof Diet," pulls no punches when making claims for his radical health recipe, cup of coffee in hand.

"You become a better employee, better parent, better friend, better person," said the former Silicon Valley entrepreneur now living in Canada. "My energy changes, my brain changes. I can pay attention, I can follow through."

The cornerstone of Asprey's diet is a drink called Bulletproof Coffee, a modified version of the caffeinated beverage which uses beans stripped of mycotoxins -- essentially mold that forms during the fermentation process.

Add to that butter from grass-fed cows and medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) oil.

The ingredients are blended together to produce a creamy, naturally sweet beverage a bit like a milkshake, taken at breakfast in lieu of a meal.

"So you drink a couple of these and all of a sudden you don't care about food for a very long time," said Asprey. "Your brain has energy that doesn't come from sugar, you didn't want sugar in your coffee and you lose the craving and you sort of have freedom."

Asprey used to weigh 300 pounds, and spent much of his life battling to lose weight.

The coffee diet idea came to him during a trip to Tibet in 2004. He was weak with altitude sickness while traveling in the mountainous region -- until he drank yak butter tea.

Asprey was so impressed by the energetic effect of the drink that he tried to reproduce it at home.

After years of trying all kinds of ingredients and combinations, he unveiled a patented formula in 2009 through his blog and on social media, claiming the coffee and an associated health regimen helped him attain a "bodybuilder" physique.



Last Updated on Sunday, 31 January 2016 15:12
David Beckham brings tea for elderly man who fell over on London street PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 02 February 2016 19:11


A paramedic treating an elderly man who had fallen over on a London street received a shock when former Manchester United star David Beckham stopped by with tea and coffee.

Ms Catherine Maynard said that she had been waiting for an ambulance with the man when Beckham walked past, before returning 10 minutes later with hot beverages for the pair.

"I was waiting with my patient for an ambulance to transfer him to hospital and although I was keeping him warm, it was very cold outside," she told the Evening Standard newspaper.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 February 2016 19:13
Sundance festival embraces virtual reality PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 23 January 2016 16:11

A real-life homicide, a woman who wakes up after being frozen for 30 years and a close encounter with a whale -- these are some of the virtual reality films creating a buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

The lineup of no less than 30 immersive experiences -- showcased in the festival's New Frontier program -- reflects an increasing willingness by filmmakers to experiment with technology that offers a new form of story-telling.

"It’s pretty amazing," said John Cooper, director of the Sundance festival.

"We're still at a nascent stage -- five minutes long, that kind of stuff -- but you can really see how it's going to grow in people’s imaginations.

"I can see coming home and saying I just need 10 minutes of VR before anybody talks to me."

Among the standout shorts, which run about five minutes on average, is "Defrost," which follows a woman who suffered a massive stroke and wakes up after being frozen for nearly 30 years.

The viewer, equipped with a headset, experiences the film from the woman's perspective as she reunites with her much older family.

"Waves of Grace" follows Ebola survivor Decontee Davis as she helps others in Liberia affected by the disease, while "theBlu: Encounter" offers a close encounter with a whale.

"Virtual reality immerses you into a really different experience you’ve never really had before," said Jake Rowell, the director of "theBlu: Encounter," which was made in three months. "It takes you back to your eight-year-old self in a lot of ways.

"Usually people leave with it being a memory, they experience it like going on a hike, or skiing."



Last Updated on Saturday, 23 January 2016 16:12
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