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Seen and Heard Prom Review
Last Night of the Proms: Andreas Scholl, counter-tenor, John Williams, guitar, Paul Lewis, piano, Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Paul Daniel, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 10 September, 2005 (TJH)
Walton – Overture, ‘Portsmouth Point’
Handel – Three arias from Italian operas
Rodrigo – Concierto de Aranjuez
Lambert – The Rio Grande
Korngold – The Sea Hawk – suite
Simon Bainbridge – Scherzi
Trad. – Down by the Salley Gardens
Purcell – King Arther – ‘Fairest Isle’
Elgar – Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’
Wood – Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (with additional numbers, arr. Bob Chilcott)
Parry, orch. Elgar – Jerusalem
arr. Wood – The National Anthem
My girlfriend and I arrive at the Royal Albert hall at a quarter-to-six. We are here for the Last Night of the Proms, something I have only read about, watched on TV, and haughtily disdained from afar. Now, in my capacity as critic, I get to disdain it in person. It is terribly exciting, especially seeing as we have standing tickets for the occasion. This will be the authentic experience.
I bump into some old Promming buddies milling about in the courtyard. You should have arrived earlier, one says. “We’ve just polished off our twelfth bottle of champagne.” I begin wondering if the cider I had over lunch will sufficiently fortify me against the evening’s celebration of all things English? As an Australian, England is about the last thing I want to celebrate tonight. I make my way back to the queue, keeping my eyes peeled for any Aussie flags to wave about during the national anthem, but the man selling them is all out. What’s more, it turns out we’ve been in the wrong queue for about half-an-hour. Ah well. The new queue is only three times the length of the old one. It takes quite some time for the queue to move in, but once inside, we settle into a spot in the centre of the arena next to a TV camera. A balloon almost immediately hits me on the head. I pummel it back into the crowd like a volleyball. A dozen other balloons and at least one beach ball will come our way before the music starts, but, unlike the gentleman to our left – who clearly feels such things are inappropriate in a concert hall – we happily play along.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra finally make their way onto stage at about the time they should have been launching into the first brassy outburst of Walton’s Portsmouth Point. Things are running a little late due to an earlier security alert that saw the whole hall cordoned off; by the time Paul Daniel, tonight’s ringmaster, lifts his baton for the first time, it is already a quarter of an hour behind schedule.
The crowd quietens down marginally and listens to the evening’s first offering. Later, Daniel will wheel out an old Thomas Beecham quote which goes: “The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.” This essentially sums up Portsmouth Point, which zips along enjoyably enough, if rather forgettably. Its rhythmic complexities make it one of the hardest pieces in the repertory, apparently; the BBCSO players scarcely glance once at Daniel’s busy baton.
Rather improbably, he is joined by the countertenor Andreas Scholl. Dressed in an immaculately-tailored suit, Scholl cuts a very dashing figure for a man who sings like a girl. He has brought along three Handel arias, including a very famous one called Ombra mai fu. It is better known as the Largo from Xerse; the lyrics, all four lines of them, are about an alluring vegetable. No wonder it is most commonly heard as an instrumental. Scholl, as it turns out, is a far better musician than the evening really deserves or requires, and his efforts – which include some impressive vocal aeronautics in the closing number from Giustino – are rewarded by an enthusiastic ovation.
Next in the pageantry is the Australian guitarist John Williams. There is pantomimic booing – perhaps, just perhaps, pertaining to a certain contemporaneous cricket match – but he just smiles and takes his place for Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. One doesn’t often hear this work complete, and thank goodness for that; Williams himself can’t help raising a droll eyebrow at the first movement’s dire banality. The finale is a little more interesting, but only a little. It is of course the famous central Adagio that contains the only music worth listening to. Williams closes his eyes and goes for intense. It works.
What doesn’t work, and possibly never did, is Constant Lambert’s ludicrous The Rio Grande. It is the sort of piece they stopped producing after the 1930s, and for good reason. Its revival here is nothing more than a sideshow attraction, a hideous chimera of bad taste held captive by a misguided sense of nostalgia. The audience loves it. They go oooh at the slushy, virtuoso pianism of Paul Lewis, who really ought to know better; they go aaah as mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, together with the combined BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, cheerfully sings Sacheverell Sitwell’s picture-postcard text. It begins “By the Rio Grande / they dance no sarabande” and only gets worse. The performance, on the contrary, is actually rather good. But, honestly.
At interval, I bravely venture forth to fetch supplies of ice-cream and water. It takes an age to reach the front of the ice-cream queue, and an aeon to extract water from a crafty little vending machine intent on taking my money and giving nothing in return. By the time I return to the arena, it has noticeably filled out. Bottoms have replaced feet on the ground, leaving very little room in which to manoeuvre. I try anyway, for which effort I receive some rather unflattering feedback from my fellow Prommers. I suspect they are merely jealous of my water and ice-cream. By now, the atmosphere is humid enough to be visible, with a vaguely threatening cloud of semi-evaporated sweat hanging just above the orchestra.
The second half begins with another heroic Australian: this time it is the great Errol Flynn, in the guise of The Sea Hawk. To be fair, Flynn does not actually make a personal appearance, but excerpts from Erich Korngold’s score more than suffice. The orchestra and Daniel do some sterling swashbuckling, clearly relishing the cheese factor.
With the audience warmed up – in some cases sweltering – Daniel addresses his audience, the first of several such occasions to come. He reminisces about the days when he was amongst the thronged masses, enjoying the pandemonium from the other side of the shirt-tails. He proves an able and charismatic raconteur although he admits later to being not without nerves. It is a big occasion for him, after all, and may go some way towards making up for his rather ignominious exit from English National Opera earlier this year. He takes the opportunity to introduce the evening’s token ‘new’ piece, which in this case is actually Simon Bainbridge’s five-year-old Scherzi. It was written as a birthday present for the BBCSO when they turned 70. Now they are 75 and it is infinitely more cost-conscious to wheel it out again than it would be to commission something really new. Composers do rather price themselves out of the market these days, don’t they?
Scherzi is the musical equivalent of the balloons certain Prommers have begun deploying in the second half. These particular balloons make a pleasing noise, spiralling up and around, climbing ever higher into the rafters, until they run out of air and collapse. This is very much the scheme of Bainbridge’s piece, whose many interweaving lines eventually become a single upward spurt of energy, before vanishing altogether. It requires some virtuoso playing, which the BBCSO manage once again without a single glance towards their conductor. Afterwards, the evening’s two superstars, Messrs Scholl and Williams, return to the stage to go Down By the Salley Gardens. The combination of guitar and countertenor does not seem likely to fill the Royal Albert Hall, but Williams and Scholl manage to do just that. It is rather lovely, in fact, as is their subsequent trip to Purcell’s Fairest Isle. This latter sees them backed by orchestra and choir, which is very nice indeed.
But now it is time for the real festivities to begin. Prommers begin bobbing up and down in time with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. Dignity and a sense of perspective prevent me from joining in, but I cannot help singing “Land of Hope and Glory” at the top of my lungs when the allocated time comes. I know that, as an Australian, I am essentially committing treason against the motherland, especially in this time of greatest need; but it’s all jolly good fun anyway. Besides, I have learned that it it’s only jingoistic if you attempt to sing in key.
Daniel has more to say. This year, Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs has a few politically-correct additions, he explains. It also features some whiz-bang multimedia hoo-ha involving the various Proms in the Parks scattered around the country. So the brass and percussion issue a bugle call, which is relayed by video screen to one of five orchestras entertaining the masses in Belfast, Manchester, Glasgow, Swansea and London’s Hyde Park. The phrase is then repeated by that orchestra and everyone cheers. The effect is pleasing, but it all goes on a bit long and distracts from the main event. During the Sea Songs proper, there is whistling, stamping, more bobbing, and some very noisy Klaxon horns. There is also some rather slushy orchestration from a man named Bob Chilcott, who has thrown in some famous regional songs (All Through the Night, Skye Boat Song and Londonderry Air) to make things a little more inclusive for those Britons not represented by Jack’s the Lad. Nothing for us Australians, though. Next year, I expect an arrangement for each of Britain’s former colonies.
Finally, it is the coup de grâce, the crowning trio of Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and the National Anthem. I put my hand on my heart and sing as loudly and as tunelessly as I know how. It is a minor betrayal, I know, and it will probably contribute to Australia losing the Ashes series for the first time since I was a little boy. But like Paul Daniel, this is my first ever Last Night, and it is hard not to be carried away by the pomp of it all. By the second verse of Jerusalem, I’ve almost found the tune. I hum it all the way home.