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."




Obama tries to strike a balance in Alaska PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 31 August 2015 18:55


Barack Obama arrives in Alaska on Monday for a trip aimed at highlighting the pace of climate change - but not everyone in this oil-rich state is welcoming the US president with open arms.

Rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, melting permafrost: the effects of climate change are stark in this vast but sparsely populated state.

Obama, who will speak at the closing of an international conference on the Arctic, wants to shore up public support to tackle what he calls "one of the greatest challenges we face this century."

His visit comes just months before a crucial conference in Paris -- known as COP21 -- in December that will aim to cap global temperature increases by two degrees Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels.

"What's happening in Alaska is happening to us," Obama said before leaving Washington. "It's our wakeup call. And as long as I'm president, America will lead the world to meet the threat of climate change before it's too late."

Obama, who will visit glaciers and also meet fishermen who work the front lines of a changing environment, is clearly looking for strong images to highlight his message.



Last Updated on Monday, 31 August 2015 19:02
All creatures great and small: London Zoo weighs 17,000 animals PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 29 August 2015 20:32


London Zoo on Wednesday carried out its annual weigh-in as it sought to keep track of more than 17,000 animals in its care.

Ten-week-old penguin chicks and 80-year-old tortoises were among a huge variety of animals that had their vital statistics recorded at the zoo in London's Regents Park.

Each measurement is recorded in the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), a database shared with zoos all around the world, helping zookeepers to compare important information on thousands of endangered species.

"With different behaviours, personalities and traits to take into consideration, zookeepers use ingenious tactics to entice the animals in their care to stand up and be measured," said an official from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Last Updated on Saturday, 29 August 2015 20:35
Extreme diving, crucial to Arctic research PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 17 August 2015 09:49



How do algae react to the warming of the Arctic Ocean? How is it affecting wildlife in the fjords? To find answers, researchers rely heavily on divers who brave the icy waters to gather samples.

"Without them, we wouldn't be able to successfully complete our projects," admits Cornelia Buchholz, a marine biologist who is working at Ny-Alesund on Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago in the heart of the Norwegian Arctic.

Until the start of the 1960s, this town -- the northernmost permanent human settlement in the world -- was populated by coal miners.

Today it is entirely dedicated to science.

Between mid-April and the end of August when the sun never sets, dozens of researchers stay there.

The site, which boasts exceptional facilities despite its extreme location just a thousand kilometres (600 miles) from the North Pole, has a unique window on climate change, the effects of which are far more pronounced in the Arctic region.



Under water at Ny-Alesund, rising sea temperatures have already led to the appearance of new species of krill (small crustaceans) and fish, such as Atlantic cod and mackerel.

"The scientists give us a sort of 'shopping list'," explains Max Schwanitz, 52, a diver who has been working since 1994 at the French-German research station.

"For example, they tell us the type, the size and the quantity of algae they want and from what depth."

At the end of July, the surface temperature of the water was between three and seven degrees Celsius (37 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit) in the fjord. But earlier in the season, they were entering waters of less than two degrees Celsius.

"Salt water freezes less easily than fresh water, at around minus 2.6 degrees C here," he explains, and diving under the ice is rare here.

Working with him are two students, Mauritz Halbach, 24, and Anke Bender, 29. Together they form the only diving team at Ny-Alesund.

"Obviously, the temperature is on the extreme side for diving in here," explains Halbach, student at Oldenbourg in northeastern Germany.

"When visibility is very bad or the currents are strong, the dives themselves can also be extreme," he says.

- Hands: the Achilles' heel -



Last Updated on Monday, 17 August 2015 09:52
Dagenham author shares insights on truth in new spiritual book PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 26 August 2015 11:18


Author Michael George announces the nationwide release of his new book, “Reflections of You,” a self-help book that is about the invisible mirror, revealing only the truth. The book’s hardback edition is set to be released next month.

“Reflections of You” is a powerfully anointed and dynamic book with a deep insight. Its unique, uncompromising style of writing will engage and affect every believer. With thought-provoking truths, this book will encourage and challenge every believer who has a deep desire to have an encounter with the God of the Word.

“Reflections of You” will affect anyone’s vision and will bring change to whoever desires it. Everyone is looking for change, and truth is the only power that can bring about that change. When one encounters the truth, one’s life can never remain the same; truth comes to liberate and bring change for the better.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 August 2015 11:21
Turkey PM forms election government including pro-Kurdish party PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 29 August 2015 20:37


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday approved the makeup of the provisional government that will run the country until November 1 elections, including for the first time pro-Kurdish MPs.

"Our president... approved the interim cabinet formed under the leadership of Prime Minister Mr Davutoglu," the presidency said in a statement after a nearly one-hour meeting between Erdogan and Premier Ahmet Davutoglu.

The two pro-Kurdish lawmakers are from the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), marking the first time a Kurdish party has been represented in the government.

The newly appointed cabinet will not have to undergo a vote of confidence in parliament, as required in the constitution. The president's approval is considered enough for interim governments.

Erdogan called new elections after Davutoglu -- whose ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its overall majority in parliament in June polls -- failed to form a coalition government with the opposition.

He appointed Davutoglu to form an interim "election government" which according to the constitution must be made up of all parties represented in parliament.

It is the first time in modern Turkish history that post-election talks on forming a coalition government have failed.

The cabinet spots are divided up according to the parties' share of seats in parliament -- with 11 going to AKP, five to the second-placed Republican People's Party (CHP) and three a piece to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).


Last Updated on Saturday, 29 August 2015 20:42
Working longer hours increases stroke risk by up to 33%: study PDF Print E-mail
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Friday, 21 August 2015 07:17



Working 55 hours or more per week is linked to a one third greater risk of stroke compared to a 35-40 hour work week, according to research published Thursday.

Based on a review of 17 studies covering 528,908 men and women followed for an average of 7.2 years, the increased stroke risk remained once smoking, alcohol consumption and level of physical activity were taken into account.

The study, published in The Lancet, found that compared with people who logged a standard week, those working between 41 and 48 hours had a 10 percent higher risk, while for those working 49 to 54 hours, the risk jumped by 27 percent.

Working 55 hours or more a week increased the risk of having a stroke by 33 percent, the study showed.

The long work week also increased the risk of developing coronary heart disease by 13 percent, even after taking into account risk factors including age, sex, and socioeconomic status, the study showed.

In looking at the link between long hours in the work place and heart disease, Mika Kivimaki, a professor of epidemiology at University College London, and colleagues analysed data from 25 studies involving 603,838 men and women from Europe, the United States, and Australia who were followed for an average of 8.5 years.

The underlying causes of stroke and heart disease are complex, involving a mix of genetic and environmental factors.

But the researchers suggest that physical inactivity, high alcohol consumption, and repetitive stress all enhance risk.

"The pooling of all available studies on this topic allowed us to investigate the association between working hours and cardiovascular disease risk with greater precision than has previously been possible," Kivimaki said in a statement.


Last Updated on Friday, 21 August 2015 07:23
Young hopefuls in race to be first black African in space PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 27 August 2015 18:37


In half a century of space travel more than 500 people have glimpsed the Earth from the unique vantage point of the cosmos, yet no black African has been among them.

Now a Nigerian and two South Africans are in a race to become the first after being shortlisted in a global talent search to send a "young icon of the future" into the heavens.

The winner will undergo intense training, experiencing extreme G-forces and weightlessness before taking off in American developer XCOR's Lynx spacecraft, on a voyage loosely envisaged for next year.

Among the three is Freeman Osonuga, who is competing with 30 hopefuls shortlisted for the Rising Star Programme run by talent agency Kruger Cowne and the One Young World charity, both based in London.

"It feels great, being on the verge of making history. And to be in a position to inspire a generation and the continent," said Osonuga, a doctor at a teaching hospital in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.

"It would be a rare opportunity to be a beacon of hope to the continent, that truly we can literally reach for the stars and fulfil our potential."



Osonuga, who grew up in poverty in the southeastern state of Ogun, the youngest of six children, is no stranger to risk.

The 30-year-old returned in May from six months in Sierra Leone as part of the African Union's Ebola response team, for which he was given the country's Meritorious Service Award.

He acknowledges the danger in which he placed himself but maintains that "every effort to save fellow human lives" is worth the potential pitfalls.

"My risk-taking ventures aren't just for pleasure or fun, but for humanitarian purposes," said the medic, who told AFP he had always wanted to experience weightlessness.


- Goose bumps -


XCOR offers one-hour flights for $95,000 (84,000 euros) on a shuttle that takes off from the Mojave Desert in California. It has already sold hundreds of tickets, although it has yet to start commercial trips.

Its Lynx Mark II spacecraft is capable of carrying a pilot and a passenger over the 100-kilometre (62-mile) limit known as the Karman line -- the border between the atmosphere and outer space.




Last Updated on Thursday, 27 August 2015 18:40
Adidas defend controversial Man Utd women's shirt PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 04 August 2015 15:37


Manchester United kit maker Adidas has been forced to defend its controversial new shirt designed specifically for female fans of the Premier League club.

Adidas unveiled the first United kit of its £750 million ($1.3 billion) deal with the Old Trafford team last week.

But the German sportswear giant was criticised for the design of the women's shirt, which had a much lower neckline than the men's version.

One United fan, @MUnitedGirl, posted on Twitter: "Seriously Adidas? Why is the V-neck so low compared with the men's one? Some of us don't like to show cleavage.

"I call that discrimination. Nike never did that."

Responding to the criticism, Adidas said it took the thoughts of fans into account before producing the kit.

"Adidas provides an adult shirt which is a replica of what the players wear," an Adidas spokesperson said on Monday.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 August 2015 15:39
France, Britain to set up crisis centre as migrant pressure rises PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 20 August 2015 11:05


Britain and France were to announce a new "command and control centre" Thursday to tackle smuggling gangs in Calais, as Europe grapples with its biggest migration crisis since World War II.

Under a deal to be signed by Home Minister Theresa May and her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve, British teams will be deployed to bust smuggling gangs and also reduce nightly attempts by desperate migrants and refugees to break into the Channel Tunnel.

But in an interview with AFP, the head of the Red Cross slammed the "indifference" of governments across Europe that has allowed a continental crisis to take hold.

"What will be the saturation point? When will everybody wake up to see that it is a real crisis?" Elhadj As Sy, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in Geneva.

His comments came as a barrage of alarming statistics showed that hundreds of thousands of migrants -- many fleeing war and persecution in countries like Syria -- are pouring into the European Union, with no end in sight.

The new deal for Calais includes extra French policing units, additional freight searches, and making the railhead at the Eurotunnel entrance more secure through fencing, security cameras, flood lighting and infrared detection technology.

It also provides 10 million euros ($11.2 million) over two years to speed up asylum applications and boost humanitarian aid in the northern port city.

Some 3,000 people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia are camped in Calais, hoping to get to Britain where many have family and work is thought easier to find.

- Record highs -

The numbers trying to reach Britain are a tiny fraction of those entering other European countries, particularly Germany, which said this week it expects a new record 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015 -- far more than the 500,000 initially expected.

Cazeneuve was due to travel to Germany on Thursday evening to discuss the issue, which ChancellorAngela Merkel has warned could become a bigger challenge for the European Union than the Greek debt crisis.

EU border agency Frontex on Tuesday reported a record high of 107,500 migrants at the European Union's borders last month.

And the number of migrants arriving in debt-crippled Greece is accelerating dramatically, with nearly 21,000 landing on the overstretched Greek islands last week alone, the United Nations said.

Red Cross chief Sy said the only way to stop the traffickers was to increase legal means of migration.

"It's Greece today, it could be another entry point tomorrow," he said. "The more legal room you have (to migrate), the less room you will have for criminal activity."

The EU has approved 2.4 billion euros ($2.6 billion) of funding to help member states cope with the flood of migrants, but Sy insisted the response so far "is nowhere near the scale of the problems that we are seeing."


Last Updated on Thursday, 20 August 2015 11:07
Brazil builds climate tower in pristine Amazon jungle PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 26 August 2015 10:53



Deep in the pristine Amazon jungle, Brazil's newest skyscraper has a mission unlike any other: to save the world.

The white and orange metal frame called Amazon Tall Tower Observatory, or ATTO, is a bold new tool in the push to understand climate change and the vital role of rainforests.

At 325 meters (1,066 feet), the ATTO is a meter (3.3 feet) higher than the Eiffel Tower and a good bit taller than London's loftiest building, the Shard.

But instead of the typical city din of honking horns and engines, the loudest noise around the skinny structure is the chatter of cicadas and tropical birds.

Built in the Uatuma nature reserve, 350 kilometers (217 miles) from the city of Manaus and reachable only after hours of rough roads and a boat ride, the ATTO is seriously remote -- and for the climate scientists that's the point.



"Being far from towns and man's influence ensures we can collect relatively pure data," said Meinrat Andrae, director of the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry, which is partnering with Brazilian research agency Inpa on the German-Brazilian funded project.

The Amazon is seen as a big piece of the global warming puzzle, since trees are a key weapon in safely capturing destructive carbon gasses. And at 3,000 kilometers wide, the Amazon is the greatest of all rainforests, known to many as the lungs of the world.

"Thanks to this tower we'll be able to better understand the role of the Amazon, its effect on the local climate and also on the global climate," said Antonio Ocimar Manzi, one of the Brazilian scientists.



Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 August 2015 11:07
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British Queen celebrates