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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 July 2006, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
Taking the stage for Proms night
Alison Smith
Alison put in hours of practice before the First Night
The BBC News website's Alison Smith is performing in the BBC Proms for the first time with the BBC Symphony Chorus. She describes the excitement of the First Night.

'For any of you who haven't sung in the Proms before, I can tell you it's the first night that is the most exciting, not the last,' said our chorus director Stephen Jackson, breaking off from talking about the importance of pronunciation during a rehearsal of Dvorak's Te Deum last week.

From that point on, I started to feel the anticipation.

People around me - some of whom had been singing in the Proms for years - seemed to raise their levels in rehearsals, as the thought of the Royal Albert Hall stage set in.

Professional technique

From my seat second row from the back on stage, almost directly in front of the conductor, I could see faces in the packed audience - and they looked thrilled to be there.

Many had paid just for the chance to stand. But those standing at the front had a view I would have appreciated - just a few feet from the soprano soloist.

The magnificent Barbara Frittoli filled the hall with pure notes, each as good as the last, and a wonderful vibrato.

It is always useful to watch the professional's technique - I would have liked to see how she prepared for each phrase, how she moved up to the higher notes.

But we enjoyed her great sound, together with Sir John Tomlinson's rich bass for the solo in Te Deum.

Frittoli received passionate applause for her performances from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.

Then came the swelling melodies of Smetana's My Country, which kept me hooked and my mind off the approach of our performance of Te Deum immediately after.

Extra dynamism

Our conductor on the night was Jiri Behlohlavek, the new Czech chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

He seemed to revel in the opportunity to bring to attention a lesser-performed work from his home country's best-loved composer.

Jiri Belohlavek
Jiri Belohlavek conducted the First Night

Te Deum, whose text comes from a Latin hymn, is smaller in scale than the famous Stabat Mater and Requiem, but the music is beautiful, eulogistic.

When we rehearsed with Behlohlavek for the first time a few days ago, I was struck by his mild-mannered nature.

But with concert dress comes an extra dynamism and aggression - from the performers and conductor.

Works rehearsed for weeks are over in a flash. Nothing went wrong and our Te Deum seemed to go as planned. Only the final cry of Allelujah! came too soon.

It's natural to look for the conductor's reaction. And Jiri Behlohlavek was smiling warmly.

Our own chorus master, Stephen Jackson, who prepares us for the Proms, had on occasions seemed less satisfied in preparation - once tossing his music into the air in apparent frustration during the final rehearsal with the conductor.

During the last week he had been urging more out of us. After our performance I passed him backstage to a cheery 'Well done, folks'.

There'll be praise when we meet for our next rehearsal, I am sure.

Few more anxieties

After the interval, while listening to the BBC Symphony Chorus's impressive performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor, television cameras caught my attention and reminded me that this was a major event.

Various BBC luminaries were milling around with wine glasses afterwards, soaking up the post-concert atmosphere.

The Proms are known and loved by thousands. They bring the best classical music talent to as many people as possible.

For me it was a chance to work with people better than I, and to learn more and more about singing, which I took up two years ago.

This is the first choir I have ever sung with, so I probably had a few more anxieties than most.

They mainly centred around making some kind of mistake. But I knew the piece well enough for that not to happen.

And then there is concert etiquette - making sure I was standing and sitting at the right times, that I knew when and how to get to my seat, that I wasn't late, that my blouse wasn't too low cut, and so on.

Concert dress for the Chorus is all black - and very formal. Ankle-length skirt or dress, long sleeves, black tights and subtle jewellery only. In other words, no flesh on display.

Colours and short-sleeves are permitted as a long-awaited Last Night of the Proms reward.

There was only one negative point for me: When I scanned the audience, the faces looking back were almost universally white.

But my overriding memory will be an involvement in something special and valued, and of enjoyment.

For the last week Te Deum has swirled around in my head - but it'll soon be replaced by Prokofiev in preparation for our next Prom on 29 July.

There's a lot more fun and good experiences to come this summer, right up to the Last Night on 9 September.



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