Prom 74: The Last Night of the Proms 2011, a rather forgettable occasion

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 74 – Last Night Of The Proms 2011: music by Maxwell Davies, Bartók, Wagner, Liszt, Chopin, Britten, Rodgers, Elgar, Arne, and Parry plus arrangements of traditional items: Lang Lang (piano), Susan Bullock (soprano), Jenny Agutter (narrator), The Fanfare Trumpeters of the Household Division, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra,  Edward Gardner. Royal Albert Hall,London, 10.9.11. (JPr)

Susan Bullock (c) BBC Chris Christodoulou

I perhaps intend this as a personal commentary rather than a full review of something that cannot be taken too seriously as an evening of important music-making. What is this ‘Last Night’ for? Should it be a distillation of the season that precedes it, an acknowledgment of important anniversaries, or an evening where some significant music is thrown away as the warm-up act for the jingoistic, let-your-hair-down, flag-waving musical trifles that traditionally conclude this concert? The latter seemed more appropriate than ever this year.

I have only one other live ‘Last Night’ to compare it with not too long ago but even then in a relatively short time it seems to have been ‘dumbed down’ even more – if that were possible? At least there was previously a sense of swelling national pride – for good or ill – built up in the second half that gave some true meaning to the singing of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ or ‘Rule, Britannia!’ Now an international audience – I was surrounded by more Germans than I usually sit next to atBayreuth– wave flags because that is what you are supposed to do. It has all become meaninglessly ritualistic and indistinguishable from many copycat ‘Last Nights’ you can find performed in your local areas from time to time during the year.

I suppose all this could be part of the BBC pandering to its charter for ‘political correctness’ and much-vaunted multiculturalism. Lang Lang was clearly there to promote his new Liszt CD and since it is released by Sony Classical most of the Germans in the audience might have been connected with them.

The Prommers antics seemed very restrained compared to previous years – perhaps they are just getting too old and so have to conserve their stamina more nowadays? There were some whizzing balloons, occasional party poppers and squeaks, as well as the familiar international variety of flags, including, pink Union Jacks. Who decided on the musical programme in the first half? It seemed that no two pieces fitted together and nothing in the first 30 minutes or so commanded the seated audience’s attention and most, I suspect, were wishing they had stayed in the bar for another drink – if they hadn’t brought something into the hall itself, as many had.

It began with English National Opera’s musical director Edward Gardner, a very suitable Cameron/Clegg/Miliband clone, guiding his orchestra and The Fanfare Trumpeters in bearskins through a new concert overture entitled Musica benevolens from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of The Queen’s Music. This was a commission by the Musicians Benevolent Fund (who should put their money to better use) and ‘a tribute to soldiers fallen or wounded in overseas engagement’ who deserve a better tribute than this brassy dissonance. It was a setting of slogans in praise of music and perhaps it would have been better had Gardner allowed the Promenaders to join in as suggested at Martin Laheen’s ‘We are Prommers – we love music!’ and not censoriously hushed them.

More dissonance followed with Bartók’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin and its exotic harmonies outstayed its welcome. Then came the biggest disappointment of the whole evening when Susan Bullock came on to sing Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung. In the context of this populist evening, on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, someone coming on to sing about the end of the world was totally incongruous. That it should be sung without any brio or sense of drama by someone so experienced in Wagner roles was inexplicable. Perhaps it was nerves – or her conductor’s lack of familiarity with this music – but it was approached as though it was the denouement of a Richard Strauss opera. It also seemed to be sung minus any of the top notes I always thought Wagner included, as though in an arrangement for low mezzo.

For once let’s be thankful for Lang Lang who brought a welcome sense of virtuosity to the Liszt and Chopin he played either side of the interval. In the past I have found his rhythmic willfulness and antics at the piano a little OTT but here they were toned down somewhat and were entirely appropriate to Liszt’s bravura showpiece Piano Concerto No.1, Chopin’s swaggering but lyrical Grande polonaise brillante, Op.22, and a poignant, unexpected Chopinesque solo encore of Liszt’s Consolation No.3. Both Liszt pieces are on Lang Lang’s CD of course.

Percy Grainger’s setting of the Scottish folksong Mo nighean dubh, sung by the BBC Symphony Chorus lasted barely a few minutes, though it was long enough to cast a spell on the audience; but again it was totally at odds with what we were hearing around it. Things got even stranger as – more suitable to a Blue Peter Prom – we were presented with Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra with a newly commissioned poetic commentary by Wendy Cope. This was the first time I have heard this piece so I do not know what the original was like but for me Ms Cope’s text seemed rather too self-consciously child-friendly and Jenny Agutter’s cheery – but shouted – narration failed to come to terms with its prosody.

Now the ‘Last Night’ antics began and at last people recognised it was time to start having a really fun time. Susan Bullock returned for her amplified contributions during the ‘community singing’ of ‘Climb ev’ry mountain’ and ‘You’ll never walk alone’ and she was clearly challenged again by their highest lines. It was time for Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 with its ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. After this Ms Bullock came back with mock helmet, breastplate, shield and spear, all covered with national symbols, for ‘Rule, Britannia!’ with added strained Wagner interpolations. To mention Blue Peter again her costume looked as though it had been designed by a young child in one of their competition, Susan Bullock looked very unhappy especially with the unruly winged helmet that wanted to fly off from time to time. Hadn’t she tried it in good time before – it didn’t look like it?

That they couldn’t find something that fitted her properly was compounded by the inability to find the conductor a microphone that worked and it seemed symptomatic of everything that ails Britain rather than Arne’s song being a paean to an ability to ‘rule the waves’. Edward ‘Three Microphones’ Gardner welcomed viewers watching throughout the world and outdoors in the UK. He reminded the audience that (like exam results) it had been another record breaking year and how the BBC Symphony Orchestra have a Barbican series starting soon and his English National Opera have two new productions: he urged on-lookers ‘to bring your extraordinary energy to everything else we are doing’.

Then swiftly through Jerusalem, The National Anthem and it was all over, time for ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and home. Increasingly frivolous, camp, inconsequential and forgettable, theBBC Proms ‘Last Night’ experience – at least in the Royal Albert Hall – is something I will try and avoid from now on I think.

Jim Pritchard