Paul Daniel [Proms 2005 – Last Night]

Written by: Colin Anderson

Paul Daniel is about to conduct the Last Night of the Proms for the first time; he is also preparing Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites for English National Opera…

On one of the hottest days of the year I meet up, and sit in a churchyard, with Paul Daniel. He’s about to conduct The Last Night of the Proms for the first time. We talk between rehearsals for English National Opera’s revival of Dialogues of the Carmelites, one of Poulenc’s last pieces, opening at the Coliseum on 5 October. “It’s about nuns caught up in the French Revolution. Because of their faith they go to the guillotine. It was a screenplay; from that Poulenc took the text. The author was dying of cancer and his fear of dying was built-in to what he wrote about these nuns facing their own deaths; the already-ill Poulenc also created something intensely autobiographical. It’s a personal and great opera. The Prioress has the most dramatic death-scene in opera; it’s riven with fear and very shocking. The music is very moving and is a cathartic experience. We have a great cast.”

Meanwhile, the Proms, the Last Night, which begins with Walton’s exuberant Portsmouth Point, “one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire from the rhythmical point of view; we’ll go for broke with that.” And it will be good to hear Simon Bainbridge’s Scherzi again, after five years. “That’s a malaise of modern music: we’re all so anxious to find the next brand-new thing. When you play something again, with some thinking time in between, that’s when a piece really grows. There’s too much music being written nowadays with people anxious for their grant or subsidy; the listener and the orchestra don’t have a chance to get much from new works.”

But isn’t the Last Night just another concert? “The Last Night is never just another concert. I was watching the Proms on television when I was a child and I was going to them when I was very young; I travelled down from the Midlands on the train and had some incredible experiences. We queued from early in the morning; it was a great thing to get to the front.”

Paul Daniel has conducted three operas at the Proms: Boris Godunov, War and Peace, and Korngold’s Violanta. “I’ve always been a Korngold fan. The Sea Hawk, great swashbuckling music, was one of the first pieces I proposed for the Last Night. Korngold wasn’t jobbing and just writing incidental music; he even ensured that the films fitted his rhythms. It’s very different today: composers write perfect wallpaper music to fit onto to the room that’s already been built; it used to be a more organic process.”

The Proms maintains its traditions, though: the Last Night flag-waving and jingoism. “I don’t have any comment to make about jingoistic elements! Bearing down on specific moments of English history which produce questionable lyrics is a bit like bearing down on a football supporter and asking why he chants murderous words at his opponents. Britain wasn’t great and didn’t rule the waves when that particular poem was written; Britain hardly had a navy that year. These are aspirational words and sung with hope. I don’t see jingoism in what happens on the Last Night.”

Dated, though? “If you’re a social scientist you can look at what we do in theatres and concert halls in that way. Someone in Brent decided that (Shakespeare’s) Romeo and Juliet was demeaning to women and it was taken off the schools’ curriculum. You can look at Don Giovanni and see it as putting a serial rapist on stage. There are an awful lot of aspirations expressed in the Last Night – especially this summer with London again having been the focus of tricky things. The one thing that people want is hope. Look at the lyrics of Purcell’s ‘Fairest Isle’, which I have included for Andreas Scholl, the first countertenor to appear at the Last Night. The lyrics tell you where I think I am on the Last Night; it’s a Utopian vision because it involves this country.”

And is the speech written? “It will be of the moment, how it feels on the night. I’m not giving anything away!”

  • BBC Proms 2005
  • Box Office 020 7589 8212
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 7 September 2005 and is reproduced here with permission
  • English National Opera

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