And is there honey still for tea? The Last Night of the Proms

As English as Earl Grey tea, wasps at a picnic, warm beer, wet summers, Rupert Brooke, and Andy Murray not getting past the semis at Wimbledon, the Last Night of the Proms is a fine tradition and a much-loved national treasure.

Music snobs and cynics may criticise the Last Night (and indeed other programmes in the Proms season) for “dumbing down” classical music. Others may regard all the flag-waving and singing of Rule Britannia! as rampant jingoism verging on unpleasant nationalism – and if the Prommers were skinheads and card-carrying BNP members, maybe that would be true. But in fact, watching the Last Night on television on Saturday night, the overriding sense is of a wonderful shared experience and a real celebration of music and music making. And not all the flags were Union Jacks, not by any means…..

Photo credit: BBC

The Proms has grown, from its relatively humble origins at the Queen’s Hall in London at the end of the nineteenth century, to an internationally renowned music festival. When the Proms were first conceived, the motivation was to bring classical music to a wider public and to encourage those who might not normally go to classical music concerts to attend. This is still the Proms’ USP, and something it is clearly doing right, given the record attendance figures this year. Latterly, the Proms has become more populist: this year we’ve had a Horrible Histories Prom, a Comedy Prom and a Spaghetti Western Prom, but alongside these more popular programmes we’ve also had many premiers of new works, fine orchestras and soloists from all around the world, and night after night of fantastic music.  I have been to four Proms, reviewing for Bachtrack, and have enjoyed every single one of them. After the stuffy, hidebound, reverential atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, with its (mostly) snooty, superannuated audience, the Royal Albert Hall is a breath of fresh air. At each Prom I attended, there was a wonderful sense of people coming together to enjoy and celebrate music.

It’s hard to get a ticket to the Last Night: like Wimbledon, tickets are allocated by ballot and you have to submit your request months in advance. Thus, the sense of occasion is even greater, if you are one of the lucky ones to be there. Even if you are not, the tv and radio coverage is so good these days that you can join in the festivities from your living room, as I did last night. Or attend a Prom in the Park, a relatively new innovation which aims to bring music to an even wider audience.

The programme started seriously enough with a new work by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, followed by some lively, spiky Bartok, before the first Main Event of the evening, Susan Bullock singing Brunhilde’s self-immolation scene from Wagner’s Ring cycle. I can live without Wagner, though certain friends insist that I can’t, and while I admired Susan Bullock’s performance – and her striking scarlet dress – I found the extreme vibrato in her voice obscured the music. She’s clearly a popular performer, and interviewed afterwards by Katie Derham, she admitted that the atmosphere in the hall was remarkable.

Next up was Chinese posterboy rockstar pianist Lang Lang. He’d dashed from the Prom in the Park across the road in Hyde Park, where he’d played the most ridiculously flashy account of Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’ I have ever heard, to perform more Liszt, the First Piano Concerto, in the main hall. I admit I have very little patience with performers like Lang Lang. Sure, he’s a fine technician, but there’s no real substance nor depth to his playing – and this was more than evident in the Liszt Concerto, which he reduced to another display of unnecessary piano pyrotechnics. Added to that, his gurning and grinning, his affected gestures, and his Liberace-like smiles at the camera…. He’s a big crowd-pleaser and received rousing and sustained applause. He returned after the interval to wreck Chopin’s ‘Grande Polonaise Brillante’, more schmaltz and sugar plums, before offering the most sycophantic, sentimental Liszt (the ‘Consolation’ No. 3) as an encore.

Next, Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’, a welcome relief after Lang Lang’s extreme attention-seeking, with Jenny Agutter reading a rather toe-curling new version of the text written by poet Wendy Cope. The rest of the programme is, traditionally, devoted to the massed singalong, beginning this year with ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ (from The Sound of Music) and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, Susan Bullock returning to the stage in a vivid electric blue gown, to lead the singing. Then it was Elgar, twice, the audience urged by conductor Edward Gardner (the youngest conductor to conduct at the Last Night) to sing up and drown the piccolo. And finally, Rule Britannia!, sung by Susan Bullock, wearing a hilarious parody of Britannia’s costume, complete with flashing daffodils on her breastplate, and Jerusalem. All good wholesome fun, and entirely uplifting.

So, the Proms is over for another year, yet predictions are already being made about next year’s programme. I’ve heard rumours that Barenboim will conduct all nine of Beethoven’s Symphonies, and, being the Olympic year, the 2012 season is likely to be really special. I’m looking forward to it already!

Meanwhile, the autumn season at the Wigmore Hall has just begun, and I have a full diary of concerts to look forward to, beginning tomorrow lunchtime with young French ‘piano babe’ Lise de la Salle. Other highlights include Robert Levin playing Mozart with the OAE, Garrick Ohlsson, Louis Lortie, Peter Donohoe and Mitsuko Uchida. You can find links to all my reviews for Bachtrack on this blog, as well as plenty of other piano-musings. And don’t forget to check out Bachtrack’s listings for concerts, opera and ballet around the world (click on the graphic on the left).

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke (spot the quote which inspired this post!!)


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