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."





Weekly sex makes for happy couples: US study PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 18 November 2015 21:32

How much sex is enough? Just once a week is all it takes for optimal happiness among married heterosexual couples and those in long-term relationships, said a US study Thursday.

The findings are based on surveys of more than 30,000 Americans collected over four decades, and are published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

"Although more frequent sex is associated with greater happiness, this link was no longer significant at a frequency of more than once a week," said lead researcher Amy Muise, a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto-Mississauga.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 November 2015 21:33
UK's Cameron sees setback over votes for teens in EU referendum PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 18 November 2015 21:34



Britain's government came under pressure Wednesday to let 16 and 17 year-olds have the vote in a referendum on European Union membership after suffering a defeat in parliament.

The House of Lords voted in favour of the amendment to a law currently being debated which governs how the referendum, to be held by the end of 2017, will be conducted.

The government must now decide whether to try and get the decision reversed in the House of Commons, or whether to agree to let 16 and 17 year olds have the vote as well as over 18s.

Some senior Conservatives currently expect the referendum will take place in September next year but a lengthy parliamentary battle over voting age could delay that.

The scale of the defeat in the unelected upper chamber -- by 293 votes to 211 -- was larger than expected.



Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 November 2015 21:35
Record-equalling Vardy stars as Leicester go top PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 22 November 2015 20:39



Jamie Vardy equalled a Premier League goalscoring record as he helped take Leicester City to the top of the table with a 3-0 win at Newcastle on Saturday as England's leading clubs paid tribute to the victims of the Paris terror attacks.

England striker Vardy scored in first-half stoppage-time at St James' Park when he cut inside Moussa Sissoko to equal Ruud van Nistelrooy's record of scoring in 10 consecutive Premier League games for his club.

However, Vardy is still short of all the time English top-flight record for goals in an unbroken run of 12 club matches set by Jimmy Dunne of Sheffield United in the old First Division during the 1931/32 season.

Few would have tipped either Vardy, who scored just four goals last term and was playing non-league football just a few years ago, or Leicester to enjoy the heights they have both achieved this season.


Last Updated on Sunday, 22 November 2015 20:41
Obama Thanksgiving message on refugees: world 'full of pilgrims' PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 26 November 2015 18:53



US President Barack Obama Thursday delivered a Thanksgiving message in which he compared modern refugees to the pilgrims whom the holiday celebrates, urging Americans to open their arms to the potential immigrants.

"Nearly four centuries after the Mayflower set sail, the world is still full of pilgrims -- men and women who want nothing more than the chance for a safer, better future for themselves and their families," Obama said in his weekly address, referring to the boat on which the pilgrims arrived in the New World.

Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the group after fleeing religious persecution in England. For many Americans, it has become a family-oriented day marked with an enormous meal of roast turkey, an assortment of side dishes and a slice or two of pie.

"I've been touched by the generosity of the Americans who've written me letters and emails in recent weeks, offering to open their homes to refugees fleeing the brutality of ISIL," Obama said, referring to the Islamic State group.


Last Updated on Thursday, 26 November 2015 18:54
Rome banishes centurions, rickshaws over tourist scams PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 26 November 2015 18:55



After two millennia, the last centurions have finally been banished from Rome.

As of Thursday men who dress up as soldiers of the ancient empire and offer to pose for tourist snaps in return for cash were banned from the streets around the Colosseum and the rest of the Eternal City.

Drivers of bicycle-drawn rickshaws and touts selling bus tours or tickets to historic monuments were also outlawed under a decree issued by city commissioner Francesco Paolo Tronca.

The commissioner is running the city pending the election of a new mayor and his decree declared the measures necessary on security grounds and to defend the reputation of Rome by protecting tourists from scamsters.


Last Updated on Thursday, 26 November 2015 19:06
Coffee-drinkers less likely to die from certain diseases PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 17 November 2015 21:13



People who report drinking three to five cups of coffee per day are less likely to die prematurely from heart disease, suicide, diabetes or Parkinson's disease, US researchers said Monday.

Both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee were shown to have benefits, said the study by researchers at the Harvard University Chan School of Public Health published in the November 16 edition of the journal Circulation.

The study compared people who don't drink coffee, or drank less than two cups daily, to those who reported drinking "moderate" amounts of coffee, or up to five cups daily.

The study did not prove a cause-and-effect for coffee and the reduced likelihood of certain diseases, but uncovered an apparent link that aligns with previous research, and that scientists would like to probe further.

"Bioactive compounds in coffee reduce insulin resistance and systematic inflammation," said first author Ming Ding, a doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition.

"That could explain some of our findings. However, more studies are needed to investigate the biological mechanisms producing these effects."

No protective effect was found against cancer in this study. Some previous research has pointed to a link between coffee consumption and a lower risk of certain cancers.

The study was based on data gathered from three large, ongoing surveys including some 300,000 nurses and other health professionals who agree to answer questionnaires about their own medical conditions and habits at regular intervals over the course of 30 years.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 November 2015 21:15
New York art season chalks up solid sales PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 16 November 2015 16:48

The autumn art season wraps up in New York with successful auction sales of just over $2 billion but with a dash more caution than the bonanza records chalked up in the spring.

The star of the season was an Amedeo Modigliani nude, "Nu Couche" -- which went for an eye-watering $170.4 million at Christie's.

The second most expensive piece of art sold at auction, the Modigliani nude was bought by Chinese taxi driver turned billionaire Liu Yiqian, one of the country's biggest art collectors.

The record, also set by Christie's earlier this year, is held by Pablo Picasso's "The Women of Algiers (Version 0)," which fetched a staggering $179.4 million in a record-breaking spring season.

The fall's second highlight was Roy Lichtenstein's iconic pop art "Nurse," which Christie's sold for $95.37 million in the same auction.

Sotheby's parted with $1.15 billion of impressionist, modern, post-war and contemporary art, narrowly beating Christie's $1.05 billion, but there were fewer star lots than in May and a smattering of empty seats.


The rival houses, both founded in 18th-century London, claimed success and dismissed talk that the art market was in jeopardy due to a flagging Chinese economy and a plunge in world markets in September.

"All week the press have been painting this sort of picture that somehow the market has hit some sort of resistance," said Sotheby's auctioneer Oliver Barker.

"I think actually tonight manifestly proves otherwise," he said after Sotheby's Wednesday sale put the company on track to achieve its highest annual impressionist, modern and contemporary art sales in 2015.

"It makes a good story, simple as that," Barker said.

"A lot of money has traded hands over the last 10 days and I think actually in many ways, that is proof enough that the market is still very strong and resilient."

- Bit of readjustment -

The November sales set new auction records -- for Modigliani, as well as for a string of 20th century artists including Cy Twombly, Lucio Fontana, Louise Bourgeois and Lichtenstein.

"The market is strong," Christie's auctioneer and number two, Jussi Pylkkanen, told CNBC television.



Last Updated on Monday, 16 November 2015 16:50
Prince William, Cameron offer Paris attacks condolences PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 17 November 2015 21:27



Prince William and his wife Kate, as well as British Prime Minister David Cameron, signed a book of condolences at the French embassy and ambassador's residence on Tuesday after the Paris attacks.

"To all those who have died and were injured in the heartless attacks in Paris, and to all the people in France: Nos plus sincères condoléances (Our sincerest condolences)," William wrote at the embassy.

Cameron in his message expressed "shock, sadness and grief", signing the book at the west London mansion flanked by French ambassador Sylvie Bermann.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 November 2015 21:28
Ambassador swims Nile at Khartoum for Facebook bet PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 22 November 2015 20:38



The Dutch ambassador to Sudan swam across the Nile in Khartoum on Saturday in a stunt that began as a bet to win more "likes" for her embassy's Facebook page.

Clad in an bright orange swimsuit bearing the embassy logo, Ambassador Susan Blankhart swam several hundred metres (yards) across the Blue Nile with six other Dutch women and seven Sudanese women, cheered on by dozens of supporters on the riverbank.

"It was lovely, it was beautiful. I would recommend that everyone swims across the Nile," Blankhart said laughing, back on dry land after the crossing.

She had originally said that she would swim across the river if her embassy's Facebook page received more than 10,000 likes.


Last Updated on Sunday, 22 November 2015 20:39
Russia finds two other paintings under avant-garde masterpiece PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 12 November 2015 19:12



Art experts in Russia say they have discovered two earlier paintings hidden under a monochrome masterpiece by Kazimir Malevich, and an inscription by the Russian avant-garde artist that may shed light on the meaning of the work.

Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery -- which houses one of three versions of the iconoclastic art work "Black Square" -- uncovered two Cubist images underneath the top coat of black paint as they investigated it using X-rays for its centenary this year.

"It was known that under the Black Square, there was some underlying image. We found out that there is not one image, but two," Yekaterina Voronina, an art researcher at the Tretyakov, told the state-run Kultura television channel.

"We proved that the initial image is a Cubo-Futurist composition, while the painting lying directly under the Black Square -- the colours of which you can see in the cracks -- is a proto-Suprematist composition," she said

Also found on the white border surrounding the black square was an inscription in Malevich's handwriting that, while it still being deciphered by analysts, seems to read "Negroes battling in a cave".



Last Updated on Thursday, 12 November 2015 19:14
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