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A Bright Future

final night of the 2008 BBC Proms in London


The sea of flag waving across every inch of London's Royal Albert Hall (English, Welsh Irish and Scottish), the pops, hoots and toots ricocheting from side to side, balloons and beach balls volleying around the packed arena and exuberant audience humming and singing, all signalled that Saturday night's Last Night of the Proms [13 September 2008] was every bit the party, the cherry in the cake, in what has become -- according to this year's Last Night conductor, Sir Roger Norrington, the 'greatest music festival in the world'. Certainly the Last Night has become a somewhat ritualised expression of Britishness, yet a Britishness which, far from the Empire-flavoured patriotism of the early days of the festival, is by now inclusivist and cosmopolitan, as displayed by the international array of flags suspended around the choir seats behind the orchestra, highlighted by an atmospheric blue lighting. Diversity was also symbolised by the sartorial kaleidoscope, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Chorus in black or white jacketed (men) contrasted by indigo, blue, red and yellow dresses (ladies), and audience aflame with outlandish combinations, and flag-patterned hats and scarves.

Party atmosphere in London's Royal Albert Hall. Photo © 2008 Malcolm Miller
Party atmosphere in London's Royal Albert Hall. Photo © 2008 Malcolm Miller

For all involved the Last Night is above all about sheer spectacle and fun, yet if, as the programme book warned us the Last Night is really 'a party with music' and 'not a concert at all' (the 'real' last night having been Beethoven's Choral Symphony the night before) the line up of international stars, with the BBC Chorus, Singers and Symphony Orchestra guaranteed first-rate music making. Certainly the three main stars, the conductor Sir Roger Norrington, Bryn Terfel and pianist Helene Grimaud, really transformed what might have been a hotchpotch of lollipops into a memorable musical experience. Moreover, if there was just a tiny lack of OTT-ness in the final round of audience singalongs, this was more than made up for in the finesse of the performances, and choice of new 2nd half works and arrangements to refresh the by now hackneyed versions of yesteryear.

The more serious first half of the programme seemed tailor-made for Norrington, framed as it was by two Beethoven works -- The Creatures of Prometheus and the Choral Fantasy. In the overture the BBCSO (in their twelfth prom this season) played like a finely honed period orchestra, with crystalline articulation and exuberant syncopated accents, and broadly shaped melodic phrasing. Helene Grimaud's dashing artistry (she beamed a broad smile to the arena audience during one of the orchestral interludes) produced a powerfully dramatic and glistening account of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, with a grippingly improvisational introduction, delightful exchanges with the woodwind during the orchestral variations and later the soloists and chorus, in a reading that brought alive Beethoven's intriguing intermeshing of piano concerto and prototype for the Choral Symphony.

If fun and fireworks is an essential ingredient of the Last Night, then it was Bryn Terfel who supplied it in abundance in both halves of the evening. Three romantic opera arias displayed his brilliance of characterisation and acting: an urgent yet also serenely visionary 'O du, mein holder Abendstern' from Wagner's Tannhäuser, where Wolfram's inner goodness was conveyed by wonderful colouring in his secure and rich voice; then the sharp edged menace of the villain Scarpio from Puccini's Tosca, in 'tre sbirri, una carozza' from Act I, the electrifying power vividly etched out against the evocative chime bells and chorus. Finally, a masterful aria from Verdi's Falstaff, where a be-costumed and large-bellied Terfel regaled us with bumptious witty stage gestures, at one point interrupting Sir Roger's baton, and addressing each principal string player with booming yet nuanced resonance, expressive of each turn of emotion in his questioning the meaning of 'honour'. 'L'onore' Falstaff growls, 'Ladri' (thieves) only to be imitated wryly by the gruff trombones.

In the second half Terfel again took the lion's share. His spine-tingling Silent Noon by Vaughan Williams with Helene Grimaud's evocative accompanying followed a rather entertaining, highly modulatory and little known arrangement of Funiculi, Funicula by Rimsky-Korsakov. Next came the world première of Chris Hazell's Folk-Song Medley, newly commissioned arrangements (following on the spirit of one of the season's highlights, the July 'Folk Day') beginning with the aptly pastoral English folksong 'The Turtle Dove', shaded with solo cor anglais and strings, leading to a more march-like 'Loch Lomond', with male choral refrains capped by a climactic mixed chorus. The expressive heart of this mini-suite was the Welsh 'Cariad Cyntaf', with Terfel's beguiling lyricism matched by delicate oboe and trumpet lines over sustained strings, while the Irish 'Molly Malone' formed a light-hearted finale, characterized by spiky textures and Terfel's warbling vibrato for Molly's 'ghost wheels her barrow/Through streets broad and narrow'. By now the audience had warmed into participation in the refrains, as they did in the ensuing 'Rule Britannia', in a refreshing revival of the arrangement by Malcolm Sargent (in place of the usual Henry Wood version). More innovation in the form of an additional Welsh verse and refrain, also found Terfel in high spirits, clad in a large Welsh flag and holding up a chart of Britain's Olympic Gold Medals as we all sang 'Rule Britannia!'

Certainly the Last Night is an 'invented tradition', yet the interest lies in the way it is constantly re-invented, and particularly so following a decade of innovation with Nicholas Kenyon at the helm, in the first season under a new Director, Roger Wright. For Henry Wood (conductor for the first half century), the Last Night had been an end of season 'knees up' while it found its formulaic sea-shantying patriotism under Sir Malcolm Sargent in the 1950s, with the advent of television and the mass communication and the codification of the formulaic choice of Arne's 'Rule Britannia', Wood, Elgar Pomp and Circumstance and Parry's 'Jerusalem' for the final lap. In this first of Roger Wright's seasons some of the traditional elements took on new guises. As well as the Sargent version of Arne, Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs was here replaced by Vaughan Williams' Sea Songs, which eschews any hornpipes, and instead offered an expressively shaded alternative to the usual antics. It was preceded by the now compulsory Henry Wood Fanfares which, as last year, were bounced between the Royal Albert Hall and five Proms in the Park events across the British Isles as question and answer. It was this technical possibility that stimulated the new commission from young (thirty year old) British composer Anna Meredith.

If Sir John Drummond's famous 1995 Birtwistle commission caused a certain 'Panic', Meredith's work was clearly a crowd-pleaser, but no less interesting for that, and it represented moreover one of the two commissions from women composers this year -- the other being Chen Yi's Olympic Fire, premièred on 8 August 2008. Meredith impressively harnessed the full hi-tech resources of audiovisual links across the British Isles for her witty and relentless rock minimalist orchestral choral work, punningly titled froms. Meredith specialises in crossover styles of rock and minimalism, and here combined the interactive relaying of Proms in the Park ensembles with a text drawn from Prommers' phrases, such as the opening choral exclamation, 'chorus to audience', and the final 'Heave Ho' -- or so it seemed to me as much of the text was in fact hard to make out in the rather boomy sound mixture. The work starts simply, with a single repeated note for first violins passed across the stage to second violins (situated on stage right) then to violas. Then there is a witty round of chorus applause, and some shushing from another part of the hall, before the double basses join in. Meanwhile, the steady repeated note builds up a tonic pedal that grounds the harmony, allowing the various geographically separated groups to merge. Visually one could follow this in the hall through two suspended screens, showing firstly the BBC National Chorus of Wales (from Swansea), then the brass ensemble from Ulster. Each in turn played in a superimposition over the rich textures within the hall, the fine coordination evident as Norrington wrenched the harmony up a tone unanimously into a new key, at which point the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from Glasgow entered the fray, in a type of large scale canon, followed soon by the drumming percussion section of the BBC Concert Orchestra in Hyde Park, adding a layer to the already brassy mixture and driving the momentum forward until a final change of metre signalled the concluding section. If the musical ideas were somewhat thin and the harmonic idiom conservative, perhaps Orff and Sibelius meet Michael Nyman, one had to admire the ingenuity of the geographically separated dialogues and the vitality of the propulsive thrusting style.

After Meredith had been brought on stage to savour the enthusiastic applause, Sir Roger Norrington gave his 'traditional' Last Night speech, in which he began by praising the combined forces of the BBC Singers, Chorus and Symphony Orchestra, who, as he rightly declared, were playing 'as well as ever'. Following the 'traditional' three cheers for Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Proms ('old timber'), Norrington also paid tribute to the passion and love of music of the prommers (who this year raised over 69,000 pounds for charity) and thanked all the audiences, those in the hall, and those at home around the world, adding his own personal credo of gratitude to 'Classical Music', 'that amazing thing, which never lets you down' and is 'for everyone'. His sentiments were certainly borne out by the statistics of this year's Proms, with 78% of concerts sold out and a 90% attendance for main evening concerts, as well as an increase in events overall. In this light, the first Proms season under the new Director Roger Wright seems to have been an outstanding success. Norrington's self-styled paean of praise to music was a nice touch:

Music brings joy and love
And can deepen feeling;
Music feeds both hearts and minds;
music brings us healing.
Music can be so profound
and music can be fun;
music questions all our lives
and music makes us all one.

His strident conducting of the entire audience in Elgar's Pomp and Parry's Jerusalem affirmed those sentiments and -- when the orchestra had left the stage -- an a cappella hand clasping, all swaying Auld Lang Syne brought to a close another Last Night. It was one which, resonating into the night sky, provided an optimistic glimpse -- bolstered by the riches this 114th season has brought -- into a bright future for classical music in Britain and beyond.

Copyright © 15 September 2008 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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