The Last Night

Flourish with Fireworks, Op.22
Purcell, arr. Henry Wood
New Suite
Dido and Aeneas – Thy hand, Belinda … When I am laid in earth (Dido’s Lament); With drooping wings ye cupids come
Trumpet Concerto in E flat
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Chôros No.10, ‘Rasga o coração’
A Grand, Grand Overture
In a Monastery Garden
Gershwin, arr. Barry Forgie
Shall We Dance – They can’t take that away from me [BBC commission: world premiere]
Libertango [arr. Julian Milone]
Music for the Royal Fireworks [selections]
Rule, Britannia!
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)

Alison Balsom (trumpet)

Jiři Bělohlávek, Goldie & Jennifer Pike (vacuum cleaners); Sir David Attenborough (floor polisher); Rory Bremner, Stephen Hough, Martha Kearney & Chi-chi Nwanoku (rifles)

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 12 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael TammaroAs a finale to one of the best BBC Proms seasons in recent years, this Last Night was probably one of the best, too. Dispelling with Henry Wood’s Sea-Songs and commissioning Fanfares might have ripped the soul out of tradition but it made the second half seem much slicker.

The first half was of interesting if undemanding works that included a rarity from the Proms founder Henry Wood, the wonderfully understated New Suite. Written to celebrate Purcell’s 250th-anniversary 100 years ago, Wood re-scores some of Purcell’s music for a more-colourful orchestra would now be considered sacrilegious nowadays. The dominant Royal Albert Hall organ cocked an irreverent snoot at Purcell’s in a way that has fallen out of fashion; a shame as there are moments of charm as well as real respect for the composer in Wood’s re-working – the fourth movement ‘Song of the Birds’ for instance.

To open the evening, Flourish with Fireworks, Oliver Knussen’s homage to Michael Tilson Thomas, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Stravinsky, written in 1988 for MTT’s first season as Principal Conductor of the LSO, Fireworks being Stravinsky’s piece. This was a commanding performance and an excellent opener; lightly delicate strings danced deliciously about the complex patterns.

From faux Purcell to the real thing, the closing scene from “Dido and Aeneas”, with Sarah Connolly, the BBC Singers and a slimmed-down orchestra in a performance intimate and fresh and diction-conscious. Musical diversity included Connolly’s compassionate performance of Mahler’s song-cycle, sympathetically accompanied most of the time, the BBC Symphony Orchestra sometimes overpowering.

Heitor Villa-LobosHeitor Villa-Lobos’s showpiece begins with a long orchestral prelude leading to a choral outburst shrouded in percussion and rhythmic, a rousing and effective ending to the first half.

Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture opened the second half. Written for the inaugural Hoffnung Music Festival concert in 1956 – Gerard Hoffnung died 50 years ago – the piece utilises three vacuum cleaners, a floor polisher and four rifles alongside a cornucopia of percussion. This was comedy all the way, as the reluctant cleaning devices dutifully tuned up at the start and studiously followed David Robertson’s cues. ‘Authentic’-performance practice was clearly being observed with a 1956 floor polisher, while adoption of different sizes of “Henry Hoover” (domestic and commercial) provided the variety of pitches required; and Malcolm Hicks’s wonderfully vulgar performance on organ was just too loud. Such fun!

More fun followed in Albert W. Ketèlbey’s In a Monastery Garden, his first big hit, the composer discovering a repeatable formula, such as In a Persian Market and In a Chinese Temple. While his music may have fallen into neglect, Katèlbey was in his time a leading composer of light music. Here, In a Monastery Garden, the BBCSO strings gamely stepped up to the mark.

Sarah ConnollyAn arrangement of Gershwin by Barry Forgie, of BBC Big Band fame, returned Sarah Connolly, now joined by Alison Balsom, who had played Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in the concert’s first half. Forgie hives off a small band of piano, bass and drums to accompany the soloists, a slow introduction launching into a whirlwind of a rumba for trumpet solo. ‘They can’t take that away from me’, brought Sarah Connolly to the fore with a Cool-School trumpet cadenza. While Connolly clearly enjoyed the opportunity, her beautiful voice proved too light in the lower passages.

Six commissioned Calls and Responses signalled the beginning of the end for the 2009 BBC Proms season. Each of the composers (Julia Barbour, Joseph Davies, Lawrence Dunn, Aaron Parker, Eoin Roe and Saiki Tanaka, all below the age of 20), produced a call (from the Royal Albert Hall) and a response (from the five Proms in the Park events), though the composer of the Call was never the same as the composer of the Response. Selections from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks followed, accompanied by fireworks in the parks and sparklers in the Arena, and replaced the traditional sea-shanties. Hard timpani sticks and cleanly articulated double-dotted rhythms kept this performance light despite the size of the orchestra, leading into “Rule, Britannia!” in Thomas Arne’s original orchestration, Sarah Connolly dressed as an admiral with a sword that sprouted a Union Jack.

“Jerusalem” (Parry’s orchestration rather than Elgar’s), ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (aka Pomp and Circumstance March No.1) and the “National Anthem” rounded off a night of music that felt balanced and in control. Where John Drummond’s attempt in the early 1990s to remove the traditional Last Night fare in one swoop failed, the gradual introduction of new music to the Last Night has edged out long-established favourites to produce a concert that, though populist, has lost the overt jingoism that has besmirched past years. There remained a hearty rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”; some traditions go on forever!

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