Prom 73: The Last Night – “Dignity in Distress” (2)

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: Nick Breckenfield

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

As Leonard Slatkin reiterated from the Royal Albert Hall stage on the night, the Last Night, this was not the evening wanted by anyone. Yes, he knew as well as we did that everyone was wondering what an American would do to the traditions of the Last Night, and how the new (“Me,” he said pointing to himself) would affect the traditions (“You,” pointing at the audience), but for this year such thoughts had to be shelved in the wake of the atrocities that had unfolded five days before in New York and Washington.

Nick Kenyon, controller of the Proms, had addressed us equally briefly before the concert went live on air, not only to BBCs 1 & 2, Radios 2 & 3, the BBC World Service, 40 countries and – Kenyon informed us – 300 Public Broadcasting Services in America. He recognised that the changes to the programme – which stripped away Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance and Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs culminating with Arne’s Rule Britannia! – was controversial. While welcoming the continuing debate that those changes had engendered, he asked us to respect the changes in the spirit in which they were made – at least for the duration of the concert.

By and large the reaction was dignified, but all credit to Kenyon for facing a potential lion’s den, because the ’continuing debate’ about the Last Night traditions has unveiled a blinkered minority (not too far away from such examples as Northern Irish Orangemen blatantly causing offence by walking up a road they should not – all because they won’t allow themselves to see another point of view). This was epitomised by a correspondent to The Times, on Friday the 14th, who claimed to be a regular Prommer, who called Kenyon’s decision “hysterical and illogical” and who said he would sing ’Land of Hope and Glory’ regardless – such views betray the utter selfishness and insecurity of unreasonable people. There are those who argue that during the war the singing of such ’patriotic’ songs served as an all-important morale boost. Of course, no one is denying that. But the circumstances are simply not the same. If Britain was affected in the way that New York and Washington is, then there may have been some justification for such defiance. Singing of how we once ruled the waves (if not the world) would seem callous in view of the appalling scenes witnessed by us all. It was the recognition of others’ suffering that had to override our inherent wish to party regardless. Perhaps, more importantly, we should remember that Mark Elder was ’sacked’ from conducting the Last Night in 1991 after he had questioned its appropriateness in the light of the Gulf War. In retrospect we would probably agree with him, even more so when one reflects that, however tragic and appalling the recent American atrocities are, America has been behind equally horrendous attacks on innocent populations in order to protect its own ’self-interests’.

If it had been Sir Andrew Davis, or any other British conductor, in charge of the concert, then the ’solution’ would have been different.But Leonard Slatkin is an American (as was the originally scheduled soloist, Frederica von Stade) and it must have been incredibly difficult to have to preside at all, let alone conduct complete irrelevancies such as ’Land of Hope and Glory’ and ’Rule Britannia!’. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against these pieces; indeed, I like singing them, and I have no problem if they retain their hold on the Last Night’s second half.

What I dislike intensely (and it is not the same thing at all) is the audience that the playing of such music attracts. I have done eleven Last Nights, ten in the Arena, and the drunken hooray-henries, who tread the borderline with hooliganism, is getting too much to take. I am delighted to say that this side of the event was almost completely eradicated on this occasion, albeit in the worst of possible situations. Yes, the odious klaxon man who comes to the first six concerts of the season as a Prommer, solely to get his last night ticket, was there still, thankfully his klaxon unused (or, perhaps, God willing, confiscated). He is one of those self-appointed traditionalists who when, in previous years, has been asked not to ruin the music by paaap-paaapping during it, turns round aggressively and accuses the requester of not knowing how to have fun. On Saturday he spent the whole of Barber’s Adagio letting out the string on a helium-filled American Flag-decorated balloon – so much for his contemplation during the music for the thousands that had died: completely, utterly insensitive – selfish in the worst sense – and completely out of tenor with the general mood. Why he is not banned I do not know.Thankfully the TV broadcast opted against shots which included sight of the balloon.

Precedent for such a removal may have already been set. The first half was interrupted during silences and stage changes by a lone voice high in one of the boxes shouting “God Save the Queen” and “Long live America”. The first couple of times such sentiments received warm approbation, but later in the concert it began to get embarrassing, which explained the prevalent “Ssssshhh”-ing that followed, let alone the single salutary retort from the Arena, “Long live Iraqi children”. No such interruption in the second half, and I wondered whether the perpetrator had been requested to leave the Hall.

By now it will be apparent to any reader that I fully endorse the changes that were made. It not only accurately reflected the broad view of the public – certainly the vast majority in the Hall – but it made for a better concert. The Last Night will always remain a curious beast. It attracts so many people who have no comprehension about what the Proms really are, and yet it is the single annual concert that, in its variety of short pieces, best approximates to the original style of Proms’ programmes over 100 years ago.

Intriguingly, the afore-mentioned correspondent to the Times claimed that the Proms didn’t belong to Nick Kenyon, but they belonged to the Prommers. Perhaps, before we get to the actual music, we should examine that statement, and the blind idiocy that is enshrined within. Who runs the Proms? The BBC. Who funds the Proms? The BBC. The audience may pride itself in being unique, but the Proms would not exist by the audience alone. All the season tickets sold each year (roughly for the Arena grossing about £77,000) would not pay for one choral concert, which leaves 72 other concerts to fund. The idea that the Prommers own the Proms is as ludicrous as it is blind. We should be thankful that the BBC continues to invest in Sir Henry Wood’s overriding principals, but it is folly for regular patrons to believe that they exist solely for their pleasure.

I was intrigued to read that Parry’s setting of Blake’s Jerusalem, as orchestrated by Elgar, was receiving its 50th performance at the Proms. It was first heard in 1942, and so has not been an annual feature since then, with twenty omissions. So much for immutable tradition then! It was though the most fitting of endings, even though there were leaflets handed out with alternative words in a (literary if not literally) feeble rewrite by those ostensibly supporting small farmers during the foot-and-mouth epidemic.Thankfully no one seemed to take any notice and sang Blake’s original, emotive and apposite words about building a society for the common good. Beautifully “orchestrated” too was the front-row Prommers, dressed as ever in dress suits (not all traditions went by the wayside), who turned and linked hands and started the traditional (of more recent hue, admittedly) rendition of ’Auld Lang Syne’. A chorus member told me that after that, when they were leaving the stage, an audience member by the organ alone sang “Land of Hope and Glory,” lost to the rest of the audience in the cavernous acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

Back to the beginning and the first three items, which remained as the original programme. As with the moving Verdi Requiem on the penultimate night (Prom 72), the two Verdi excerpts – for the centenary of his death – here were completely subsumed into the continued reaction to the atrocities in America. The Force of Destiny – the very title presupposes that for every action there is a reaction. The BBC Symphony dug into its fateful chords with steely determination. The massed choirs sang poignantly as Hebrew Slaves, the words calling for strength to bear untold suffering achieving a heightened meaning in the circumstances.

Gerard Finzi’s The Fall of a Leaf, a delicate example of English pastoralism, offered a nostalgic and perhaps naïve centrepiece to the first half, while the Season’s pastoral theme was also reflected in five songs from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, sung – not by Frederica von Stade as she was unable to fly from the States – by Ann Murray. Judging the occasion to a tee, Murray’s demeanour was restrained, but not without the occasional glint in her eye, especially in the final song, ’Chut, chut’, where a girl is sent to look after cows and finds the opportunity to collect a number of kisses. Earlier, the most famous of the songs, ’Baïlèro’, had bewitched with its languorous refrain, while ’La fiolairé’ (The Spinner), ’Brezairola’ (Lullaby) and ’Uno jionot posouro’ (A Lovely Shepherd Lass) continued the pastoral reverie.

The first half ended with a replacement for the originally scheduled The Rio Grande of Constant Lambert, in the shape of Respighi’s monumental orchestration of Bach’s organ Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582). This sombre edifice, like a funeral march, has only been conducted before at the Proms by Sir Henry Wood (in 1937 & 1938) and Leonard Slatkin – with the Philharmonia Orchestra – last year. Its appropriateness, in its slow trajectory, was voiced by a lady sitting a few seats away from me who remarked that in the Fugue all she could picture were the two airliners smashing into the World Trade Centre, and the unimaginable horror that ensued.

It was, of course, the all-too recognisable similarity of that image to the title, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which, for the second time, led to the abandonment of it at a Last Night (in 1997 it was deemed inappropriate after the death of Princess Diana). John Adams was represented instead by his mournful fanfare, Tromba lontana, with its two antiphonal solo trumpets, before Leonard Slatkin prefaced Barber’s Adagio with a request for a minute’s silence. Only a couple of week ago Slatkin had conducted the work, in Prom 42, but here the performance represented America’s memorial music, allowed each person to reflect on the enormity of the events in their own way. Although we had been specifically asked to restrain our applause there was some spontaneous clapping, perhaps recognition of the searing intensity the strings had brought to the music.

Sir Michael Tippett’s Spirituals from A Child of Our Time beautifully fulfilled its difficult task in this rearranged concert. Using a musical form we regard as quintessentially American, but written by an Englishman, who was appalled at the senseless brutality of the killing of innocents, in Tippett’s case a reflection of the rise of Nazism. The four spirituals chosen, played as originally ’set’ in the Oratorio, were an apt and soothing balm for the hurt and horror. ’Steal Away’ was followed by ’Nobody Knows’, ’By and By’ and ’Deep River’; (’Go Down, Moses’ being omitted).

The healing process now needed was epitomised by the finale of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, heard in context just a week earlier under Osmo Vänskä (Prom 66). Like Vänskä, Slatkin used the new Bärenreiter edition, edited by Jonathan Del Mar, and was careful to reflect every new nuance that pioneering work has done to an old, favourite friend. The well-matched quartet of soloists and the combined choirs matched the eloquence and brilliance of their orchestral colleagues in Beethoven and Schiller’s plea for universal brotherhood.

It is good to report that, in the face of the horrors of extra-musical events, Slatkin’s bonding with the BBC Symphony Orchestra seems ever closer and his well-judged, brief speeches bode well for not only a long-standing partnership as the Orchestra’s chief conductor, but also as a great conductor of a traditional Last Night. He called us, God willing, to the same place at the same time next year and promised us a return to tradition. That is what tradition is all about: not slavish, blind following of outmoded dogma, but a flexible – indeed evolving – response to our times and collective will.

I suspect the Last Night will never be the same again, but I would not want to deny Leonard Slatkin at least one attempt at the traditional line-up, when the world can revel in the eccentricity of ’mad Englishmen’ waving flags and singing as if they did rule the waves. Let us hope that next year’s world events allows us to act the world’s fool without more pressing matters to worry about.

Finally, one word about the first of the two anthems we sang at the very start. I have never sung the American National Anthem before, but was somewhat amazed to find myself singing about “The rockets red glare / The bombs bursting in air / Gave proof thro’ the night / That our flag was still there”. It seemed somewhat incongruous that we were singing such belligerent words in honour of a devastated country that had just been on the receiving end of such violence. Perhaps ’God Bless America’ (sung, of course, to the tune of ’God Save the Queen’) – even in the originally programmed Charles Ives/William Schuman version – would have been more appropriate.

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