Last Night of the Proms
here are good reasons why the audience sing “Auld Lang Syne” at the Last Night of the Proms, and one is that for those who’ve spent the previous two months sitting / standing / circumnavigating the Royal Albert Hall (the shuffling queues around that endless corridor improve on Dante’s masterplan for hell) it’s one of those decisive moments in the year when you feel time pass, like a striking clock.
And what a curious thing the Last Night is. More ritual than art, it doesn’t answer to the rules of concert life and is impervious to criticism. As a piece of programming it’s messy and is supposed to be. You’re not meant to examine it, just love it.
But I can’t help thinking that this year’s Last Night was the wrong sort of mess: not thought through with the self-concealing care that jamborees actually need. Nothing was grand or strong enough to make a statement.
There were loosely memorable items – a rabble-rousing piece of Latin Americana by Villa-Lobos, a nicely delivered Haydn trumpet concerto, and the brief but masterly exuberance of Oliver Knussen’s crowd-pleaser Flourish with Fireworks. There was the tense technical challenge of the live link with cities around Britain – done as a sequence of fanfares and responses written by absurdly young composers, some of promise.
But as a whole, it failed to be more than the sum of its parts – which is the test of a diverse programme. And its star turns weren’t big enough. In what was very much a ladies’ night, the BBC got its money’s worth from the mezzo Sarah Connolly and trumpeter Alison Balsom. And both of these ladies are fine artists who played the game required of them – Balsom by importing female glamour to a male preserve and Connolly by making a joke of her career tendency to trouser roles by coming on for “Rule Britannia” dressed like Lord Nelson.
But neither of them quite had the presence to fill the Hall. And there was a general lack of chutzpah in the novelties. The camp kitsch of Kettelbey’s In a Monastery Garden barely registered, so timid was it. And the comic potential of Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture – originally written for a Hoffnung concert and programmed here to mark the 50th anniversary of his death – was squandered, marshalling television celebrities like David Attenborough and Rory Bremner on to the platform to play vacuum cleaners and be silly but not using them to real advantage.
In fact, the Arnold overture was a paradigm example of the vacuity with which the BBC these days packages the Proms (and much else in its music coverage) with all-purpose celebs (comedians, quiz hosts, gardeners) on the assumption that they add value to the experience. Usually, they don’t.
The only added value on this Last Night came from the American conductor David Robertson who proved an aimable compere and made a speech (about orchestras as symbols of diversity in unity) that ran like a Thought for the Day script but was touching. Better than the rambling Roger Norrington in 2008.
In the last week of the Proms the Vienna Philharmonic had a twonight residency under two conductors: Franz Welser-Möst with a coreclassic programme of Haydn and Schubert, followed by Zubin Mehta with Strauss and Brahms. And what a contrast they were. Years ago, when he was based in Britain, I didn’t have much time for Welser-Möst; but either he’s changed or I have, and his Haydn/Schubert was perfection, done with reduced forces that nonetheless projected dimension out into that massive auditorium with a clarity and focus rarely heard from visiting ensembles in the Proms. I’ve never had much time for Mehta either, and that hasn’t changed: his Brahms 4 had grandeur but not enough intensity. It sailed by like an ocean-going liner while I looked on from the quayside, a spectator not a passenger.
One thing, incidentally, that I couldn’t help notice was a female leader (one of four) newly enlisted to the VPO. Given the orchestra’s notorious reluctance to take women players, this is some development. Watch out for women clergy in the Stephansdom.