While I still pray for the day when the first half of the 'Last Night' is given over to a major choral work (please, Vaughan Williams’s “A Sea Symphony” next year, in honour of the 50th-anniversary of the composer’s death), at least we had a portion of one this year. Amazingly Elgar’s “The Spirit of England” has never been heard at the Proms, so partial amends were made with the inclusion of the Binyon setting ‘The Fourth of August’ (some 35 days late, as it happened), in which Bělohlávek seemed quite at home, aided and abetted by both the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers as well as tenor Andrew Kennedy, making his second Proms appearance in a week.
It was with the Elgar that this 'Last Night' really got going. Two of the preceding items had nodded to one of the Proms themes, ‘Shakespeare in Music’, with Dvořák’s Othello Overture and the opening of Thomas Adès’s opera “The Tempest”, which continued the recent tradition of including in the 'Last Night' a piece by a living British composer (Adès taking his applause from his seat). However, even then, even with Joshua Bell’s sweet tones in both Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and Ravel’s Tzigane, the temperature remained pretty cool.
Following the Elgar (another Proms theme), though, with the irrepressible presence of Russian soprano-of-the-moment Anna Netrebko, the thaw continued apace, with the closing scene of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula”, depicting first Armina’s sleepwalking and then her joy at being discovered innocent of two-timing her betrothed Elviro with the Count, allowing the opera to end happily in some impressive vocal pyrotechnics, which even some distant conversation (which sounded like an announcement in the foyers) could not derail.
During the interval the front-row Prommers decorated the conductor’s podium with the usual plethora of paper trails, the rather appropriate learner’s “L” and a bizarre new road sign, a red-bordered circle with a drawing of a conductor in it. While there are some who stood on the podium in the last week that might warrant a ‘no conductor’ sign, Jiří Bělohlávek is definitely not one of them. He (pardon the pun) conducted himself in exemplary fashion and opened the second half Julius Fučík’s Entrance of the Gladiators, only preceded by the traditional two Prommers dusting-down Sir Henry Wood’s bust and placing a laurel wreath over his shoulders.
The Fučík immediately got the audience in hand-clapping mode, with its extraordinary swagger, taken up with surprising verve with the return of Netrebko, running onto the stage for Lehár’s hit from “Giuditta”, dancing and swirling, in her full, layered skirt like a demented fandango dancer. She then scooped up roses and – not content in beguiling front row Prommers by casting roses at them – rushed back and forth to either side of the stage to similarly enchant those gentlemen lucky enough to be close enough in the Stalls.
With hearts racing as fast as Netrebko darted about, we were in need of calming down, and Bell came back to oblige with the effortlessly sweet Estrellita by Mexican Manuel Ponce, arranged by Heifetz, followed by both Bell and Netrebko in Richard Strauss’s “Morgen”, offering some calm and quiet repose before the time-honoured shenanigans.
It was a shame that in this eclectic mix there was no room for a nod in the direction of perhaps the most worthwhile of the Proms themes this year, the celebration of the BBC’s 80-year aegis of the Proms, in ‘Proms Firsts’. Surely there must have been something premièred at the Proms over the last 80 years that would have been eminently suitable for a Last Night? In a period where confidence in the BBC has (seemingly) tumbled, what better way to remind people of the pivotal position the Corporation has in the cultural life of this country?
But, no, we were straight into the traditional items. Extraordinarily, Bělohlávek was so successful in ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ that after singing heartily, the audience en masse waited for the fast coda to applaud. Having said that, second time around, old habits were fallen back to and applause and cheering started as soon as the singing finished.
The fanfares ricocheting between the Royal Albert Hall and the various Proms in the Parks (first to newcomer Middlesborough, then Swansea, Carrickfergus, Glasgow Green and, finally, just over Kensington Gore, to Hyde Park where there were some 40,000 revellers) were not introduced and worked a treat, followed by the first three parts of Sir Henry Wood’s “Fantasia on British Sea Songs”. The sonorous tones of Michael Levis’s tuba in ‘The Saucy Arethusa’ made way for Susan Monks’s exquisite cello solo in ‘Tom Bowling’, appreciated by both her fellow orchestra members immediately in the distinctive soft sole-on-platform shuffling and Bělohlávek’s first choice for the solo bows.
There were new additions to the ‘Hornpipe’ from both leader Stephen Bryant and the flute section, who drunkenly appropriated the tune before the clapping overwhelmed ‘Jack’s the Lad’ in the usual noisy and here not-so-badly derailing race to the finish – audience versus orchestra and conductor. The three national interpolations – Wales’s ‘Ar hyd y nôs’, Scotland’s ‘Skye Boat Song’ and Northern Ireland’s ‘Londonderry Air’, sung live in the various parks, and in the Royal Albert Hall by the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers – have, to my mind, been heard enough (I’m not convinced Bob Chilcott’s arrangements meld that well with Wood). Yes, there should be some inclusivity about the various nationalities that make up the United Kingdom, but, please, let’s do it outside of Henry Wood’s ‘Fantasia’.
Here it was Wood’s own arrangement that brought the item to a close, with oboe-led ‘Home Sweet Home’ and the massed whistling of ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ leading to Wood’s version of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ (choral parts provided by the BBC Symphony Chorus’s director Stephen Jackson). It might have been more appropriate this year to use Sir Malcolm Sargent’s version in commemoration of his death 40 years ago, a fact that didn’t escape the Prommers who, at the end of the interval, had got us to give three cheers in Sir Malcolm’s memory.
Bělohlávek got us to give three cheers, too, the time-honoured acclamation to the memory of Sir Henry Wood (idiosyncratically he made a very deliberate pause between each “Hip”), before conducting both “Jerusalem” and “The National Anthem” to the manor born. Without doubt a barnstorming success, I wonder if Bělohlávek is musing how a man from a land-locked country is now in charge of a celebration of a nation that is so proud of its island and naval traditions!
I started this review with a comment about it being Bělohlávek’s first 'Last Night'. I think there is something even more significant here. It is the first time that a ‘natural’ English speaker has taken charge. Even when Kempe, Boulez and Rozhdestvensky were in charge of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, there was never an expectation they should be there on the 'Last Night'. Indeed, even Boult never conducted a Last Night [please see footnote – Ed.], so it has never been a stipulation that the orchestra’s Chief Conductor should do so.
That Bělohlávek can do it is an indication of change, I’m sure spearheaded by the Proms in the Park success. In the Hall there are so many nationalities now (lots of German flags this year, even a Brazilian one, though no Venezuelan one apart from one of the jackets donated by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra not so many weeks ago) that it has lost any jingoistic connotations, for which much thanks.
While to me, it remains, something of a bizarre, atypical event to end what Bělohlávek described as “the world’s biggest – and most democratic – music festival”, I usually come away cheered and uplifted, knowing that next year we can all convene to do it all again. Hurrah!
- Since the above was written, Mike Langhorne has provided information which reveals, according to the Prospectus for the 1946 Proms season, that Sir Adrian Boult was due to conduct the ‘last night’ that year. However, the ‘last night’ then was rather different to the one we are familiar with now, which really begun with Sir Malcolm Sargent, who conducted the Last NIght from 1947 and whose tenure of the BBC Symphony Orchestra started in 1950. On Saturday 21 September, the final Prom of 1946 included Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Walton’s Sinfonia concertante (with Phyllis Sellick as the pianist) and Sibelius’s Symphony No.7. The one concession to the Last Night festivities, as we now appreciate it, was Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs. The evening before, Boult had conducted a Prom that included Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony in the first half of the concert – alongside other works – and then Bax’s large-scale Violin Concerto (with Marie Wilson as soloist) in the second, with Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary to finish. Proms were different then! Also the programme-books included requests for patrons to not applaud between movements. That's a rider worth re-printing today!
- BBC Proms