PROM 75: Memorable Last Night Recalls “Worst Journey in the World”

08/09/2013

Prom  75: Various Composers: Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Nigel Kennedy (violin), Iestyn Davies, (counter-tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop, (conductor),  Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.9.2013 (MMB)

Prom 75_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_1

Prom 75  Photo credit:BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 Programme:

Clyne: Masquerade – BBC Commission, World Premiere
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Overture
Bernstein: Chichester Psalms; Candide Overture; Make our Garden Grow
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Britten: Overture The Building of the House
Massenet: Chérubin – Je suis gris! je suis ivre!
Handel: Xerxes – Frondi tenere e belle … Ombra mai fù
Rossini: La donna del lago – Tanti affetti in tal momento!
Verdi: Nabucco – Va, pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves)
Arlen: Over the Rainbow
Monti: Csárdás
Traditional: Londonderry Air (Danny Boy)
Rodgers: Carousel – You’ll never walk alone
Bantock: Sea Reivers
Lloyd: HMS Trinidad March UK (Premiere of orchestral version)
Arne: Rule, Britannia!
Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D major (Land of Hope and Glory)
Parry, orch. Elgar: Jerusalem
The National Anthem (arr. Britten)

 

As a little girl, growing up in my native country of Portugal, one might think that I did not know anything about the Proms. But in those days, the Portuguese Television used to broadcast live, every summer, the Last Night of the Proms. It became a tradition in my family to watch it together, in particular my father and I. He is a lover of classical music, opera and literature and I owe him my first experiences and learning of all those fantastic things. It should come as no surprise that since then I wanted to be there, in person, at the Royal Albert Hall in the middle of all those lovely people, singing along with the orchestra and soloists, dressed in elaborate costumes and waving their flags; obviously, having a whale of a time. Finally, after so many years, my dream came true and I was a member of the audience at The Last Night of the Proms. And what a Last Night it turned out to be!

For the very first time in the long history of the Proms, we had a woman on the podium, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus: the wonderful Marin Alsop. She walked in with confidence and completely unfazed by all the fuss made about her and the fact that she was the first woman to conduct a Last Night. Awesome! As one proud American citizen shouted in the arena when his country woman made her entrance to lead the orchestra. Women were strongly represented at this year’s Last Night. Besides, Alsop, the special star was no less than the extraordinary American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, and the BBC commissioned a piece from young composer Anna Clyne to open the evening.

As ever there is a divide at the Last Night. The first half of the concert is the real thing, the serious (for lack of a better word) part of the evening when people restrain themselves and do not sing, throw their party poppers, balloons or wave their flags in the air. The second half is normally the one to “mess about”! This year there was less of a divide. The welcoming roar to Marin Alsop when she first came on stage, with the flags flying high, is normally reserved for the end of the night when the usual pieces are performed but with it, the public showed her that they were on her side and did not care a bit about the ones who once said dismissively that “girls can’t do this”.

Anna Clyne’s piece Masquerade opened the concert. It was a lively, fresh, at times cinematic piece. It sounded youthful, happy and promising – the ideal start to a Last Night. Then, Alsop led the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a crystal clear, flawless performance of Wagner’s Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, followed by a powerful interpretation of Bernstein’s slightly sombre Chichester Psalms, exceptionally delivered by the orchestra and chorus; and beautifully sung by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies – an emerging talent whom I first heard in a rather excellent performance as Unulfo at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in Handel’s Rodelinda alongside such names as Renée Fleming and Andreas Scholl.

After Bernstein, we had the always popular The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, tenderly performed by one of the night’s stars, well-loved violinist Nigel Kennedy. Kennedy was excellent and suitably restrained in this first part of the concert. He reserved his somewhat unconventional behaviour for the second half when he turned up in an Aston Villa football shirt and performed his own version of Monti’s Csárdás, extracting some unexpected good-humoured sounds and improvising by including brief famous music phrases from other pieces, as for example Beethoven’s Fifth! Marin Alsop excelled in keeping her composure throughout, playing along with him and holding the orchestra together. The audience loved it and Kennedy and Alsop received a deserved roaring applause. Vaughan Williams was followed by Britten’s Overture The Building of the House exceptionally well interpreted by the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, under a clear, assured direction from Marin Alsop.

To conclude the first half of the “serious” concert, we had the extraordinary American mezzo Joyce DiDonato. Ms DiDonato is a natural, one of those rare singers who can glide effortlessly through all manners of thrills, as she demonstrated in the fiendishly difficult aria Tanti affeti in tal momento from Rossini’s La donna del lago; who can deliver well-measured sentiment and delicacy, as she showed in her marvellous rendition of Handel’s beautiful Ombra mai fù and sing a magnificent crescendo or incredible high notes with warmth and style. But she is also a great artist and her performances are always well-judged. She does not allow her virtuosity to interfere with the music or the composers’ intentions and she possesses this amazing quality of making everything she sings sound as if it had been written specifically with her in mind. In a word, she dazzled and not only in her singing but also in the gorgeous and elegant deep claret gown, especially designed for her by Vivienne Westwood. With DiDonato, the atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall was electrifying; one could almost feel the energy pulsing in the air.

After the interval, we returned to Bernstein with one of the best performances that I have ever heard of the overture Make Our Garden Grow from Candide by the orchestra and the chorus. Then there was one of the most famous pieces in opera, the magnificent Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves – Va, pensiero – from Verdi’s Nabucco. This is a show stopper for choir and orchestra and they did not disappoint. Joyce DiDonato returned, in another especially designed gown by Vivienne Westwood, more glittering than the first but equally elegant and stylish, to sing Over the Rainbow from Arlen’s The Wizard of Oz, which almost anybody knows from the film of the same name where it was sung by the then young Judy Garland. Again DiDonato performed with well measured sentiment and subtlety, touching but restrained. Nigel Kennedy arrived then with Monti’s Csárdás, as I have already described above. He was followed by Joyce singing the traditional Danny Boy, followed by You’ll never walk alone from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Generously, she and Alsop invited the audience to sing along and we all did, mostly out of tune but heartfelt.

The scene was set for the romp that is always the end of a Last Night. But, unexpectedly, before it all started we had a serious moment with Bantock’s The Sea Reivers and another first – one of the many highlights of the evening. This was George Lloyd’s HMS Trinidad March and to me it deserves a special mention. The programme of this Last Night naturally included one piece by each of the famous great composers whose birthdays we celebrate this year – I am speaking of course of Wagner’s and Verdi’s bi-centenaries and Britten’s centenary. But possibly unknown to most people, there was another composer born in 1913, largely forgotten but whose work deserves to be remembered: George Lloyd (1913-98). During World War II the so-called Arctic Convoys to Russia took place regularly and the men on these ships made the journeys in terribly harsh conditions. Winston Churchill, as stated in the Programme notes, is known to have said that it was “the worst journey in the world”. There are today only a handful of survivors from those horrible voyages and only this year have they finally been recognised with the Arctic Star for brave services to their country. The connection with George Lloyd is that he was serving as a Royal Marines bandsman aboard the cruiser HMS Trinidad. The ship was torpedoed in March 1942 and Lloyd was one of only four survivors. He had composed his HMS Trinidad March while serving on the ship and his original score also survived the attack. Later, while recovering in Switzerland from post-war trauma, Lloyd orchestrated his march for the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. This version had its UK premiere yesterday at the Last Night. This story is in itself rather touching but for me (and a handful of people sitting in that part of the auditorium) it was made more moving because just five seats to my left there was an old, frail gentleman, proudly displaying his medals on his blue blazer, who stood up wearing his Royal Marines cap, as the orchestra began playing the march. He stood there saluting for the length of the performance, solemn and respectful. There was something very poignant in the figure of that very old, rather frail gentleman, standing and saluting with slightly trembling arm the comrades who lost their lives in that the “worst journey of the world”. I have no doubt that he was one of the small handful of survivors. We, sitting around him, understood and had tears in our eyes. I only wish that the whole Hall had seen it and grasped the quiet, powerful dignity of that old man.

After this for some of us emotional moment, we had the usual “romp and circumstance” of the Last Night. Joyce DiDonato, still wearing her second shiny gown, complemented with a matching, stylised version of the British flag as a cape, returned to the stage to deliver an exceptionally well sung Rule, Britannia with brilliantly easy high notes. DiDonato made an old, often tired piece shine, almost as if we were hearing it for the first time. Has an American ever sung it before? I am not sure but if not, then this was another first. By this time, the audience was on their feet. It is amazing and wonderful to see how the Last Night and all the nationalistic, patriotic tunes have transcended Britain, becoming international. I saw flags from all over the world, people from different races and nationalities singing Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem and even the British National Anthem as if it was their own or the songs had originated in their countries. In her gracious, witty but simultaneously serious speech, Marin Alsop made a reference to this by stating that music is what makes us human and civilized.

For me, this Last Night of the Proms was unforgettable and a dream come true. But, my personal feelings apart, the evening was undoubtedly one of the best Last Nights in living memory because of the quality of the music, the musicians and the memorable performances of Marin Alsop and Joyce DiDonato. As Ms Alsop said herself: “It seems incredible that in 2013, we still have a first for women. I may have been the first woman to conduct a Last Night but let us celebrate the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth and so on.” I could not agree more!

Margarida Mota-Bull

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