Prom 73 – The Last Night

Overture – Roman Carnival
Introduction and Rondo capriccioso
Lumina [BBC commission: world premiere]
La Wally – Ebben? Ne andrò lontana
Faust – O Dieu! Que de bijoux! (Jewel Song)
Pagliacci – Stridono lassù
Vaughan Williams
The Wasps – Overture
Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances
Thaïs – Méditation
Carmen – L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera)
G Grigoriu
Valurile Dunării – Muzica
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Wood & Grainger (arr. John Wilson)
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs
Parry orch. Elgar

Leila Josefowicz (violin)
Angela Gheorghiu (soprano)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 13 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

And so to the Last Night – the 109th, as Leonard Slatkin mentioned in his speech. Looking ahead, next year’s Proms start on Friday 16 July and the first concert will feature the newly restored organ. My plea is for Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony and then Henry Wood’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Slatkin, as an encore to his potpourri of Picture orchestrations with the Philharmonia Orchestra a few years back, conducted Henry Wood’s version of ’Great Gate of Kiev’, with organ prominent, and there could be no more fitting opening to a BBC Henry Wood Promenade season. I hope Nick Kenyon and his team agree!

But I run, excitedly, ahead of myself. The Last Night of the Proms means the end of a series of 73 concerts (Slatkin referred to “85”, which includes the eight Chamber Music Proms and the four Proms in the Park – Hyde Park, Belfast, Swansea and Glasgow – although that still leaves out the CBBC Prom-in-the-Park on the following day and the four Composer Portraits). It has been a great season. It looked good on paper, and it turned out better in reality. I did 46 concerts (plus three chamber music proms) and – as usual – attended the Last Night as a party, not as a one-off concert which gives completely the wrong idea about what the Proms now is. I still wish that the bitty nature of the Last Night was kept solely to the second half, and hope that in future years one major work can be placed in the first half. The ideal work this year would have been Berlioz’s Symphonie funèbre et triomphale. It’s not done often and would have been a great sing for the BBC Chorus and Singers, and ends with a barnstorming over-the-top celebration that would be entirely fitting for the occasion.

Not that Berlioz was forgotten – the Roman Carnival Overture fizzed and popped as well as calmed down into the most lyrical reaches under Leonard Slatkin’s nimble and observant direction. But none of the other anniversaries were given even a cursory glance. The assembled choirs were required only to sing nonsense; the words to Fauré’s choral version of the admittedly delectable Pavane really make no sense at all (“Pay attention!/Keep the beat!/(Oh, mortal insult)/The rhythm is not so slow!/And the cadence more certain/We’ll take them down a peg or two!/We’ll soon be their footmen!”). And those to the Polovtsian Dances are limited variations on the “Praise Khan” theme, of little poetic or lasting value. Shame.

Mind you we did have proper words, from Angela Gheorghiu who delighted her fans with choice bits of La Wally, Faust and Pagliacci in the first half, before changing into a turquoise number for sultry Carmen (the choirs got there teeth into something a bit more meaningful here) and a Romanian song in praise of Music. Intriguingly, Piers Burton-Page in his programme note took both Gheorghiu’s record company (EMI) and the Proms prospectus to task for getting the composer wrong. It is, he told us, by George Grigoriu (1927–1999) NOT near-namesake Teodor Grigoriu (born 1926). Teodor has written a film score for a movie called Valurile Dunării! Completely different in plot (the film is about anti-Nazi partisans in the Second World War), the operetta tells the life of Romanian bandmaster Iosif Ivanovici (we just missed the centenary of his death – it was last year), who wrote a waltz called Valurile Dunării. Is that clear?

Certainly the sentiments of that song – the power of music – was echoed by Slatkin in his brief speech, interrupted by a mobile phone call (purportedly from Mr Kenyon) which reinforced the point that such devices can be disruptive. “But we’re not playing The Rite of Spring tonight” Slatkin mock-pleaded – the reference to the interruption at the start of the Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle performance (presumably lost to most of the audience both in the hall and in the various parks).

The message may even be getting through, as the audience seemed on far better behaviour than even the most recent years. The parrot-flying boor who always sets up his stall in the centre of the Arena (if they’d kept the fountain for the last night, he would drown!), was more restrained with his hooter this year. After both times we sang “Land of Hope and Glory” the march’s coda was clearly audible to the final chord before cheers took over. Only in the Sailor’s Hornpipe – Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, like last year, adapted to include Welsh, Scottish and Irish tunes which were sung in special vocal arrangements by Stephen Jackson in their principalities – did the clapping and hooting completely obliterate the music, and there was a wholly inappropriate burst of laughter at the beginning of Susan Monks’s cello solo in “Tom Bowling”.

The other soloist was American violinist Leila Josefowicz, who beguiled us (like Gheorghiu, in two different dresses) in Saint-Saëns’s Introduction et Rondo capriccioso (deep orange dress, matching the gypsy rondo theme) and Massenet’s Méditation (pastel beige sleeveless number). I wish she’d had something more substantial to play. I should have said about Gheorghiu that operatic arias out of context leave me stone cold. She has a great voice, but for me that is simply not enough – and why do audiences greet singers with so much more abandon than instrumentalists? Given that four of the items had appeared in a last night over the last 14 years, surely a wider repertoire can be found…

To end was the usual sing-a-long, where once again blind ignorance and the inability of people to read meant that Rule Britannia’s chorus was wrong. It is not “Rule Britannia, Britannia ruleS the waves” but an exhortation “Britannia rule the waves!” – nor is it “Britons never, never shall be slaves” but rather “never WILL be slaves”. For many the ’tradition’ is outdated. I have no problem with said tradition, but I do have a problem with people getting it wrong! If only Slatkin was able to tell the perpetrators off and get them to do it properly (as he almost succeeded doing with the Sailor’s Hornpipe).

Gheorghiu appeared again for the National Anthem (arranged Henry Wood) and then – although originally billed in the Prospectus but not in the evening’s programme book – the now-usual a cappella version of “Auld Lang Syne” was begun in the Arena.

I have left two performances to the end; Vaughan Williams’s The Wasps, which opened the second half – Slatkin having to remove an inflated shark from his music stand, with the comment, “it’s The Wasps not Jaws!” This wonderful work is a relative rarity and it was great to hear it from Slatkin, a passionate advocate of British music. Joseph Phibbs’s Lumina, receiving its world première, was also wonderfully evocative, the inspiration being “light on landscape” he discovered in various parts of New York State while studying there – moving from the wide open landscapes of upstate to the scintillating reflection from the New York city skyline – were all clear in this brilliant score, expertly played. It occurred to me that, with 50 American States, Phibbs might go on to create a series of “Lumini” – one for each, assuming the light strikes him differently. Great reception it got too – thoroughly deserved.

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