Proms 2006 – Mark Elder: The Last Night

Written by: Colin Anderson

Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/Arenapal

Stand by for more patriotic choruses: the Last Night of the Proms is on September 9. This year Mark Elder presides over the annual Royal Albert Hall party. “When I was a teenager the Proms were really the only source of concerts that I had. I have great affection for them, but actually I have never been to a Last Night except the time nineteen years ago when I conducted it. It’s a wonderful grand finale; the vitality and range of the music played during the festival is reflected in the variety of the Last Night.”

Maybe the flag-waving is now anachronistic? “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being energetically patriotic as long as it doesn’t topple over into something more extreme. The Last Night is about the incredible sound of this vast audience singing fervently together – these are melodies that people deeply know.” But we are in a time of war right now. “Yes, but this is a very English moment and people paint their faces and bring flags; it’s quite harmless, and I can imagine that many feel it is heart-warming and thrilling. What is important is that the Proms is respectful and sensitive to the outside world; it was right that the death of Princess Diana and ‘9/11’ was responded to. Let’s just hope that some terrible new crisis doesn’t happen.”

The Last Night conductor is required to be a master of ceremonies (“certainly”) and give a speech. “I’ve thought about some of the things I might want to touch on! I believe in talking to the public, not least when introducing pieces if I think it will help. It’s also a virtuoso evening musically with many different styles. It should be splendid.” The soloists this year are violinist Viktoria Mullova and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. There’s a smidgen of French, German and Italian music, and rather a lot of Russian. “Shostakovich’s Festive Overture is incredibly appropriate and the soloists have chosen Russian pieces because they are so close to their souls. It’s important not to be chauvinist and I thought it would be a change to give a Slavic bias.”

But “there’s plenty of famous British melodies” and includes Colin Matthews’s Vivo – an orchestral showpiece – for his 60th birthday year, and Eric Coates’s Calling All Workers, one of many gems of British light music and a famous World War Two signature tune. “Coates was a master. I have just been presented with the first-ever full-score of that work; I have never known what all the detail of the orchestration is. It needs to be played with brilliance and dash and still have that lovely polish.” Any surprises this year? “Oh, I think there’ll be some!” Is there any news on Matthew Barley’s new piece for Viktoria Mullova? “Colin, as we speak, it’s being written – so I wait to hear.”

The old favourites are there, Sea Songs and Rule Britannia, no doubt competed with by the maybe-now-tiresome klaxons and balloons bursting. “I don’t get tired – but then it’s only the second time that I have experienced it in the flesh. But I shall be ready and will give as good as I get!” You could set a really fast speed for the hornpipe? “Right, but they never finish together because there’s one less bar than they think!”

  • Proms 2006
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 7 September 2006 and is reproduced here with permission

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