Prom 73: The Last Night – “Dignity in Distress” (1)

Overture – The Force of Destiny
Nabucco – Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves
The Fall of the Leaf
Songs of the Auvergne [five selections]
Bach, orch. Respighi
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV582
Fanfare, Tromba Lontana
Adagio for Strings
A Child of Our Time – Four Spirituals
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral) – Finale
Parry, orch. Elgar

Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), Janice Watson (soprano), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone), Timothy Robinson (tenor), Kim Begley (tenor)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Harry Mills

Reviewed: 15 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There has been a great deal of discussion and, indeed, controversy about The Last Night of the Proms this year. If you were to go to the BBC Radio 3 ’Message Board’ you could be forgiven for thinking that the dropping of items such as ’Land of Hope and Glory’ and ’Rule Britannia’ were calculated insults tothe English people. Unfortunately, ’Little Englanders’ are alive and well even after the terrible tragedies of 11 September.

As a Prommer of 16 years standing (literally!) I would like to give my perspective on the Last Night. From the moment that the aircraft hit targets in New York and Washington, thediscussions between Prommers was not whether but how the BBC and Leonard Slatkin would change the Last Night programme. I heard no dissenting voices when the initial changes were announced. The revised programme was both sensible and totally in keeping with the new situation the world faced.

At this stage we were led to believe that there was a possibility that the National Anthem was not going to be played. As it is never a formal part of the programme we were not sure if it was just a rumour; however we felt that it should be played and we sent an e-mail to the BBC saying that the Prommers would sing the anthem at the end of the concert even if it was not programmed.

In fact, the concert began with both the US and British NationalAnthems. This was the logical and very moving start. The concert continued with the published items – Verdi, Finzi and Canteloube. Ann Murray’s voice is not what it was but she sung with great intelligence. The Bach, as orchestrated by Respighi, I have heard performed by Slatkin – but I have never felt such intensity before. The first half had been conducted with controlled passion (the Canteloube an honourable exception) and Mr Slatkin made a very moving and understated speech. His ability to bring a light humour even to this evening was testament to his skills as a communicator and bodes well for when the Last Night returns tonormal – we hope – next year.

The second half began with Tromba lontana by John Adams; for the second time Short Ride in a Fast Machine had been dropped from the Last Night because of tragedy (the first being the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997). Then Barber’s Adagio – described movingly by Slatkin as America’s music of grief. There was a minute’s silence before and no applause after this piece. Unfortunately, a few people did clap after the Adagio but I think it likely that they were foreigners who simply had not understood Mr Slatkin when he requested no applause. For anyone present at an earlier BBC Symphony Prom (No.42) when Leonard Slatkin had programmed the Adagio, the immense improvement in the quality of playing and the intensity of the piece was staggering. Many in the audience were in tears at the end of this.

The Four Negro Spirituals from A Child of Our Time by Michael Tippett were beautifully performed and a wonderfully apt choice to show the ’special relationship’ between the USA and Britain. Slatkin then conducted a fervent performance of the finale from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – a massive message of hope, received loud and clear by the audience. Slatkin was not the only person on the stage clearly overwhelmed by the reception.

Finally, we came together, performers and audience, for Jerusalem. The singing of this traditional closing item was quite astonishing. Never in my experience has so much passion and feeling been shown in this item. For me this was the only way to close the concert. Slatkin was correct in saying that we had tohave an item of the traditional Last Night included. Jerusalem was the only possible choice. Magnificent! It was also great to see Slatkin singing along with us.

My final thoughts are that this was an extraordinary concert, the like of which I hope never to hear again. However I am deeply honoured to have been in the Royal Albert Hall last Saturday. Leonard Slatkin was wonderful in controlling not only his emotions but also the whole evening. This was a terrible way to end his first Proms season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra but I hope this partnership will go from strength to strength. My admiration for him (already high) has grown in leaps and bounds after Saturday.

If anyone still feels that we should have sung ’Rule Britannia’ or’Land of Hope and Glory’ I would be very surprised. This was the most moving Last Night I have ever attended.

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