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Prom 76, The Last Night of the Proms 2008: Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), Hélène Grimaud (piano), various artists, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sir Roger Norrington (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 13.9.2008 (JPr)

Walking up to the Royal Albert Hall I mused that there are certain things in life that you should experience only once; eating oysters, going hot air ballooning, watching women’s beach volleyball at London’s Olympics, going to Paris etc.... and for me, being at the Last Night of the Proms. It had been a long time since I had even seen one on the TV as I used to get fed up with the flag-waving, bobbing up and down and apparent rowdiness of the Prommers. I used to scream at the TV screen, 'Why don’t they give them seats to sit on?'

Christopher Cook’s programme note mentioned how the late John Drummond once blasted the ‘antics’ as follows: ‘There’s a man who comes every year with an inflatable parrot on a string. He comes up and says, “I’ve got my parrot.” And I think, ‘Yea, of course you’ve got your bloody parrot.” And all through the thing he’s bobbing up and down with his bloody parrot … Me, me, me me, me! That’s what it’s all about.’

Now, either  I have become a more joyful person (unlikely) or ‘The Last Night’ is not what it once was but I quite enjoyed the evening. ‘In Person’ the Prommers were their normal restrained selves with only the odd silly squeaky balloon at times  holding up the music and of course we all stood up and most of us joined in with Rule Britannia/Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem right through to Auld Lang Syne at the end of the evening. Not even any of this seemed as patriotic or jingoistic as it has felt to me in the past – Britain’s proud past is unfortunately not reflected in its current present – and it was our tradition that made us join in. Yes, flags, poppers, funny hats and costumes, balloons and beach balls were present but the Prommers were saying to the world  “this is the way it’s done every year and we’re having a jolly good time celebrating at least one truly British tradition”.

Having said that, the Last Night is now nothing more than another ‘choreographed’ BBC programme put on for the worldwide TV audience and future DVD release. For the second half  – which gets the bigger TV audience and is broadcast on BBC 1 – streamers are carefully arranged around the conductor’s podium rail (plus the obligatory ‘L plate’ for a first timer, after 40 years at the Proms, like Sir Roger Norrington)  as well as streamers throughout the orchestra. There is nothing spontaneous here; it is simply the dressing of a ‘set’ and the audience become merely ‘extras’ who pay for the privilege of being there.

Of course, I do not intend to put the music or the performance under my usual microscope because it transcends criticism for what is often described as a ‘party with music’. The programme notes promised ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue’ from the music and this was sometimes rather tenuously applied to the music being performed. Apparently Beethoven’s overture The Creature of Prometheus was a new idea when first performed in 1821 and old because the finale contains a ‘popular dance form’. ‘Borrowed’ was the ‘programming practice with popular operatic arias sung by an international star’. The ‘blue’ was apparently was the original lyrics to Denza’s ‘Funiculi, funiculà’ about a young woman invited to take the train to the top of a volcano! No doubt to save the audience’s blushes it was performed in Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral arrangement.

The ring-master for the proceedings was Bryn Terfel on his return to ‘The Last Night’ for snippets of Wagner, Puccini and Verdi, Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon,
Chris Hazell’s Folk-Song Medley arrangement of The Turtle Dove (England), Loch Lomond (Scotland), Cariad cyntaf  (Wales) and Molly Malone (Ireland) and Rule Britannia. The cynical corner of my mind was wondering whether the BBC should be  helping him promote his new release ‘Songs from the British Isles’ so overtly, since even the small Union Jack flags distributed in the auditorium had the CD advertised on the back.

There is a rumour going  about that Bryn Terfel is aiming to ‘wind down’ his career as he approaches his mid-forties. When  exactly he ‘cranked it up’ is a mystery to me, though. When Bryn auditioned for me in the late 1980’s he was 22 years-old and even then was destined to become the voice the opera world was looking for as a cross between Tito Gobbi, Geraint Evans, Hermann Prey and Hans Hotter. It is currently being reported that he does not expect to go back to Chicago or Salzburg again, yet he has it in him to be this century’s finest Scarpia, Falstaff, Dutchman, Wotan or Sachs, to mention only a few present or future roles. These are roles to be repeated more than one or twice for a singer’s interpretation to gain legendary status. That he is a humble happy family man and is content to stay at home is understandable and probably praiseworthy, yet his children will grow up, and he may yet come to regret later in life the ‘what ifs?’ of his career.

I had wondered why Beethoven’s anodyne Fantasia in C minor for pianist (
Hélène Grimaud), chorus and orchestra came between the Tosca Te Deum and Falstaff’s Act I ‘Eh! paggio! … L’onore! Ladri!’ but discovered that it was simply to give Terfel time to don Falstaff’s fat suit, bald pate and whiskers. As he waddled his way down the stairs and across the platform,  he completely stole the show and it was now his evening right through to the end of Rule Britannia. I was swept along too. Bryn Terfel remains overwhelming in stage presence and magnificent in voice. Wolfram’s salute to the evening star (Tannhäuser) was smoothly sung, if a little bland, but he gave Scarpia the requisite snarling anger and menacing lust and his Falstaff was an outstanding comedic and vocal vignette. Later,  he returned in a suit made out of the Welsh flag for a rollicking Rule Britannia, yet for me his finest moments were when he reduced the Royal Albert Hall to an intimate recital venue for Vaughan Williams’s Silent Noon (given elegant accompaniment by Hélène Grimaud at the piano) and seemed to be singing individually to each of us in the audience.

Also ‘new’ for ‘The Last Night’ was a BBC Commission/world première from Anna Meredith called froms (apparently ‘from the Proms’) a short five-minute interactive work involving musicians from ‘Proms in the Parks’ events in Cardiff, Ulster and Hyde Park. Sir Roger Norrington conducted this via a satellite video link to and from the various venues. Regrettably, some unintentional (I presume)  uncoordinated chaos ensued but it was all over fairly quickly and forgotten just as soon.

For me,  Sir Roger Norrington was the revelation of the whole evening. He has always appeared to me the dourest of conductors, yet I warmed to him on the recently televised Maestro programme and during this concert. I am always pleased with people able to laugh at themselves such as when before the
traditional encore of Land of Hope and Glory he asked us, the audience: ‘Can you sing with a bit more vibrato, please?’ Of course Sir Roger’s performance practice of the great composers eschews vibrato and  he conducted the varied programme indefatigably, spiritedly and with a good humour, the prerequisites of a successful conductor of this very special event. This ‘joie de vivre’ was also evident in the wonderful support he got from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers.

To conclude the 2008 BBC Proms season,  it is good to dwell on the words Sir Roger Norrington used when asked to say what classical music is all about. He spoke most movingly when he said: ‘Music brings us joy and love. Music deepens feelings. Music feeds our hearts and minds. Music brings us healing. Music can be so profound. Music can be fun. Music can quicken all our lives. Music makes us one.’

The applause went on and on at the end of this strangely compelling evening but Sir Roger indicated that it was late and time for his sleep; the parrot on a string – yes it, or a younger relative, was there –  bobbed up and down in agreement!

Jim Pritchard

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