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 PROMS IN THE PARK 2009 – Hyde Park, London: Barry Manilow, Katherine Jenkins, Garðar Thór Cortes and other artists, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Choral Society, Martin Yates (conductor). Hyde Park, London 12.9.2009 (JPr)

Since this is a fun-for-all event and not a ‘proper’ concert requiring detailed critical scrutiny, here are some considered musings on the ‘Proms in the Park’ experience.

Having been at the Last Night of the Proms for the first time inside the Royal Albert Hall last year, it was interesting to be in Hyde Park to join in with the 40,000-strong audience gathered in the open air for the fourteenth consecutive year. The event needs good luck with the weather and this day was comfortably warm – neither too hot at first or too cold later on. Several thousand rain-sodden people on bad weather night would certainly have dampened the party spirit, so the organisers must have said their prayers this time and must have been gratified by the positive ‘answer’.

Gates opened at 4pm although members of Press had a little priority and could get in through another entrance. By the time we arrived at just after 5pm there were several thousand people gathered around the main entrance and already very many people inside - veterans of these outdoor Proms must get there very early indeed to make their way to the choice positions in front of the stage. Union Jack hats, tee-shirts and flags were to be seen everywhere and it was also clear - from the sheer depth of the crowd - that many people were happy just to be at the event wherever they happened to find a place in the arena. From the back of the crowd the performers must seem like toy soldiers on the stage and even the two screens either side of it can’t look very much bigger than those on the average mobile phone.

Bringing chairs into the park is discouraged but many people seemed well prepared with either inflatables or fold-up seating and though bottles were also prohibited apparently, a good deal of wine was copiously quaffed. Many of those attending had their picnicking down to a fine art while others – such as us – raided the local supermarket on Marble Arch for sustenance of different sorts. Supplies are certainly necessary – early birds are in for a seven hour stint and a pole-position by the stage really does mean ‘promenading’ for most of it. The clement weather on Saturday really helped of course, but I must admit that for a British event everything seemed very well organised both before and after the concert - though I did hear the usual mutterings about the inadequacy of the catering and toilet facilities.

During the 13 previous years a vast number – and variety - of acts have appeared at Hyde Park including the late George Melly, Georgie Fame, Jools Holland, John Williams, Julian Lloyd Webber, Kiri Te Kanawa, Bryn Terfel, José Carreras, Simply Red and Lionel Richie – to name just a very few. Prior to he main programme that begins at 7.30pm there seems to be a tradition to give the stage over to some tribute acts. Each year has something different, and I guess it is possible to enjoy it just as much as before. The only feature that never alters is that at just before 10pm Hyde Park and all the other Proms in the Park events join in the live video relay from the Royal Albert Hall for the traditional communal singing of Rule, Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem and The National Anthem. What nobody in the concert hall saw this year of course was the magnificent firework display we had during the excerpts from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Much of the enjoyment from Proms in the Park comes from the friendly banter, not only with people around you but from the genial host of the main show, Sir Terry Wogan, bringing his celebrated droll humour to Hyde Park for the thirteenth time. But the greatest fun – naturally – comes in the last hour, joining up with the Royal Albert Hall, for the finale that everyone knows and loves.

The opening tribute acts this time were The Counterfeit Stones, The Emperors of Soul with their Motown songs and Gary Mullen and The Works who recreated the music of Freddie Mercury and Queen. Neither ‘Nick Dagger’ nor Gary Mullen had the faintest glimmer of the genuine charisma of Jagger or Mercury and the Emperors of Soul, from BBC 1’s Your Country Needs You, were by far the most polished performers.

Katherine Jenkins

Before the headline performance from veteran Brooklyn-born songwriter and crooner Barry Manilow, there were a number of contributions from the BBC Concert Orchestra, the new ‘forces favourite’ Katherine Jenkins, Icelandic-English tenor Garðar Thór Cortes and electronic string quartet Escala.

Terry Wogan memorably introduced Cortes’s aria La donna è mobile as ‘My kebab is moving’. Cortes’ voice throughout what his set, including the fearsome top C-riddled Ah, mes amis from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, was well produced and technically very good. However, his upper body posture seemed very unrelaxed which kept his voice in his throat so that the sound had very little legato about it.

‘The Nymphet from Neath’, as Wogan describe Katherine Jenkins, sang Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville as her first contributionrevealing a voice lacking any colour and gave an expressionless performance with a botched top note. She then sang Sarah McLachlan’s Angel to commemorate, she said, the seventieth anniversary of the start of WWII. This song included lines like ‘You were pulled from the wreckage … You are in the arms of an angel, may you find some comfort there’. It’s hard to believe that the very large party of Germans in front of me understood either the dedication or the words: they were waved their Bremen flags as enthusiastically throughout this song as they had through the valiant orchestra’s performance of Ron Goodwin’s 633 Squadron theme music!

I warmed towards Katherine Jenkins a little the more she sang but I cannot imagine who would want to hear a sing a whole. The six songs she did sing seemed more than enough and worryingly there is already a very noticeable vibrato in the voice which clearly needs something should done about it urgently.

John Barrowman and Barry Manilow

Everyone was in a great mood even before Barry Manilow appeared to sing many of his greatest hits including Could It Be Magic, Bermuda Triangle, Copacabana and I Write The Songs, among others. At 66 he looks quite fragile as if a gust of wind would blow him over and his voice is not what it used to be but he seemed genuinely humbled by the size of the crowd he and performed a generous set full of Las Vegas-style razzmatazz. A big roar went up as he welcomed on stage another crowd favourite, John Barrowman, as his surprise guest to join him in duets of I Made it Through the Rain and Can’t Smile Without You.

But people also come for the finale it is a genuinely wonderful sight to see all the flags waving, and people on their feet for Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia, as well as Jerusalem. And to her credit Katherine Jenkins came back out to wave her flag too, joining in with everyone else. I gave Auld Lang Syne a miss to avoid the mass exodus but had the impression that the party was continuing even as people were beginning to file out to the various bus stops, railway and tube stations.

For those who like good entertainment and community singing, as well as, seeing the Last Night at the Proms in an informal setting, the Proms in the Park concert is the place to be. It’s different from being in the Albert Hall but there was better variety and in the programming, and a much better atmosphere altogether to my mind. 40,000 each year can’t be all wrong, can they?

Jim Pritchard  


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