The Last Night of the Proms Fails Fully to Ignite

12/09/2016

Proms

Prom 75 – The Last Night of the Proms: Juan Diego Flórez (tenor); Duncan Rock (baritone); Francesca Chiejina, Eve Daniell, Lauren Fagan & Alison Rose (sopranos), Claire Barnett-Jones, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Anna Harvey & Katie Stevenson (mezzo-sopranos), Trystan Llŷr Griffiths, Oliver Johnston, Joshua Owen Mills & James Way (tenors) and Bragi Jónsson, Benjamin Lewis, James Newby & Bradley Travis (baritones/basses); BBC Proms Youth Ensemble; BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 10.9.2016. (CC)

prom-75_cr_bbc-chris-christodoulou_15

Juan Diego Flórez serenades Paddington Bear at the Last Night of the Proms 2016
(c) Chris Christodoulou

Tom Harrold – Raze
Butterworth – The Banks of Green Willow
Borodin – Polovtsian Dances (Prince Igor)
Rossini – ‘Sì, ritrovarla io giuro’ (La Cenerentola)
Donizetti – ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ (L’elisir d’amore)
Offenbach – ‘Au mont Ida’ (La belle Hélène)
Britten –Matinées musicales
Jonathan Dove – Our revels now are ended
Torke – Javelin
Vaughan Williams – Serenade to Music
Donizetti – ‘Ah! mes amis’ (La fille du regiment)
Anne Dudley (arr) – Fiesta caribeña
Elgar –  Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 in D major
Henry Wood (arr.) – Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (with additional numbers arr. Chilcott)
Malcolm Sargent (arr.) – Rule Britannia!
Parry – Jerusalem (orch. Elgar)
Britten (arr.) – God Save the Queen

It was difficult to know exactly what to expect, for one’s first Last Night. A multitude of telecasts over the years (more than I am willing to reveal here) implied fun and frolickery everywhere, coupled with an electric atmosphere. Perhaps it was the Brexit kerfuffle with the flags; perhaps it was the very British infernal drizzle that saturated South Kensington (and me) in the lead up to this most British of activities, but there was a rather dampened atmosphere here that had nothing to do with the rain outside. And this even in the festive romp that formed the evening’s concluding chapter. As to the flags, there was a colourful selection, with the Union Jacks most decidedly outnumbering the EU flags. Pops and burst balloons peppered proceedings, yet somehow the occasion just did not take off.

Two huge screens above the conductor generally showed what I assume was the television relay, assisted by a few smaller screens around the sides. It was all too easy to watch the close-ups of the soloists rather than the soloists themselves, it turned out, but it was a nice touch to show choirs at various time from the “other” Last Nights around the British Isles, even if there was an inevitable asynchronous element. The programme began with the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble in the world premiere of the BBC commission Raze by Tom Harrold (born 1991). A mere five minutes’ duration, it made its dissonant point succinctly and in a most assured performance, but was hardly memorable.

After the Placing of the Chaplet by two Promenaders, we heard Butterworth’s quintessentially English The Banks of Green Willow in a beautiful, flowing performance that included a superb clarinet solo from Richard Hosford. Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances are superb Proms fodder, heard here in great choral fervor. A pity the orchestral opening was gray, a nondescript neutral canvas that spoke of little to no rehearsal.

So far so varied, with nods to the routine. To the rescue, then, came Juan Diego Flórez, token superstar of the evening, in Don Ramiro’s ‘Sì, ritrovarla io guiro’ from Cenerentola. It has been a great year for Rossini (Barbiere and Semiramide), and this was a quite lovely appendix. Even here Flórez seemed a touch quiet at the start, before his lovely legato won us over, the high notes boding well for his Donizetti showpiece later in the evening. Perhaps the highlight of the entire evening was Flórez’s rendition of ‘Una furtive lagrima’, starting with a magnificent bassoon solo by Julie Price leading into a wonderfully sculpted reading of the aria. Another ringing top note for Offenbach’s ‘Au mont Ida’ (receiving its first Proms performance) and hints of a great sense of humour before we returned to the orchestra alone for a performance of Britten’s Matinées musicales that was attractive but nothing more. The long first half ended with Jonathan Dove’s 2004 Our revels now are ended in a 2016 revision, referencing the Season’s homage to Shakespeare in its setting of Prospero’s speech (The Tempest). This was the world premiere of the version with symphony orchestra. The solo baritone part, palpably indebted to Britten, was ably taken by full-voiced Duncan Rock. Dove’s writing was expert, his imagination able (the sudden, magical stillness of ‘We are such stuff’ a case in point). The final section seemed flecked with minimalism. This is by some way the best piece I have heard by this composer.

So to the second half. Michael Torke’s Javelin (1994), commissioned by the Atlanta Olympics Committee, tended towards film music for most of its duration. It was difficult to hear from my seat what the opening was like given Oramo’s keenness to get things going before the audience had settled down, a trait that ran through the evening, possibly due to time constraints? With plenty of gesture but no real substance, Torke’s piece paled in comparison with another Shakespeare piece, Vaughan Williams’ 1938 Serenade to Music. Here with a roster of BBC Proms debutant(e)s, the soloists’ first, ensemble statement of ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!’ was exquisitely blended. All the soloists shone (I think I would feel guilty spotlighting one). But it was Flórez’s performance of ‘Ah! Mes amis’, with Andrew Rupp as the Corporal, that headed the evening most surely in the direction of its finale. A pity the orchestra was not entirely on the ball for their part, but the Peruvian tenor mixed lyricism with some flawless top Cs.

He wasn’t the only Peruvian in London. Flórez sang with both microphone and soft toy of Paddington Bear (he came from Peru, remember?)  for Anne Dudley’s arrangements of a string of Latin American tunes in Fiesta caribeña. Four classic songs found the BBC Symphony with more oomph than the Sāo Paolo Jazz Symphony Orchestra could muster in their Late Night Prom earlier in the season. The Bear got the Flórez treatment in the aptly named ‘Piel canela’ (Cinnamon Skin) before attempting to inject life into the audience and get them to sing-along-a-Flórez in ‘Guantanamera’. All good fun, thankfully.

So to the standard fare for the last night, even if the Fantasia on British Sea Songs had additional numbers inserted by Bob Chilcott: Ar hyd y nos (All through the night), Skye Boat Song and Londonderry Air. Here the broadcasts from our related territories added an interesting element, enlivened by the asynchronous nature. Somehow, I think John Cage might have approved.

What Cage might have thought of Flórez dressed as an Aztec Warrior I don’t know, but I thought he looked like a parrot with a good voice and a strange sense of patriotism towards the British. He was also magnificently enthusiastic in the second verse (not to mention looking completely bonkers as he shook his trident at the crowd). But the final quartet of pieces, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem, God save the Queen and Auld Lang Syne, had less vim. Oramo is clearly a nice guy and well intentioned, as his speech showed, but he failed to provide the necessary fire the evening so required.

And so the 2016 Proms comes to an end, one of the better seasons overall with a glittery sprinkling of highlights. A pity the Last Night does not rank as one of them.

Colin Clarke

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