United Kingdom Kylie Minogue, Il Divo, Alfie Boe, London Community Gospel Choir and other artists, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Choral Society, Richard Balcombe, Simon Chalk and Cliff Masterson (conductors), Hyde Park, London 8.9.2012 (JPr)
After a few years I was happy to return to Proms in the Park the jolly end-of-season ‘Picnic and Pimms’ event with music and lots of flags. It is usually a one-off opportunity for the patriotic, and anyone similarly inclined, to wave a Union Flag with unusual gusto. However the summer of 2012 must have tested the most muscular of flag-waving arms what with the Diamond Jubilee, Olympic and Paralympics. Yet still people seemed in the mood to party. The biggest crowd of 40,000 ever were present we told repeatedly from the stage and I wondered how this was bigger from the 40,000 who were apparently there in 2009.
Last time I commented on Proms in the Park I said it was “not a ‘proper’ concert requiring detailed critical scrutiny”. In hindsight that is a little discourteous to the artists concerned. So this time I will treat this event like any other I go to – as well as musings again on the Proms in the Park “experience” in its seventeenth consecutive year.
In a summer that has seen some of the worst seasonal weather of recent memory an outdoor experience such as this needed some good luck – and got it. The day was almost uncomfortably warm and it was not too cold once the sun when down. I arrived a little after 5pm but the gates had opened sometime earlier yet still there were huge numbers of people gathered around or queuing at the main entrances and already several thousand people inside. Talking to some of them I lesrned many come back year after year and often get there very early indeed to get to the prime positions near the front of the stage. The Union Flag – as we have learnt to call it in 2012 – is seen in all its multifarious forms such as hats and tee-shirts, mixed in with flags from many other nations.
It is clear from the sheer depth of the crowd that many people are just happy to be there wherever they find a place in the arena, as from the back of the crowd they cannot see anything and the only two screens there are either side of the stage and cannot look very much bigger than those on the average smart phone. It is all a very reasonable £35 for a ticket – and they generously(?) let under-3s in free – whilst charging a ridiculous £7 for a programme, an offer that many obviously find easy to refuse leaving most with little idea as to who is actually doing what.
During the previous years a vast number – and variety – of “headline” acts have appeared at Hyde Park for the main event from 7.30pm but prior to that it is a tradition to give the stage over to mostly tribute acts. Each year it is a different mix and from what people said they always enjoy it just as much as before. The only feature that never alters is that around 10pm Hyde Park and all the other Proms in the Park events join in the live relay from the Royal Albert Hall for the traditional communal singing of Rule, Britannia!, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem and the National Anthem. What people miss who are in the concert hall is of course is the magnificent firework display that concludes our Hyde Park experience.
Much of the enjoyment from Proms in the Park came from the friendly banter, not only with those people around you but also from the droll host of the main show, the legendary Sir Terry Wogan, a Hyde Park Proms in the Park regular. In typical fashion he “translated” Alfie Boe’s “O sole mio”as “A delicious fish” and earlier suggested how pleased he was to share the stage with people with “such taste in music and such control of the bladder”. Probably these remarks were already on the autocue he was reading from. Sadly when there were technical issues and other small delays, Sir Terry’s inspiration deserted him and his hesitancy made Clint Eastwood’s much commented on off-the-cuff remarks at the Republican Party’s 2012 Convention seem like a speech from Shakespeare. In the earlier part of the show the host was another veteran, Tony Blackburn, who had no script at all and certainly would have benefitted from one; his remarks were mostly of the “Wasn’t that amazing?” and “How’s everybody doing?” type. The latter we heard time and time again from others throughout the evening often connected to “We love you”. Two typical Blackburnisms were “It’s great to be out, because I do not get out much these days” and “I don’t want the OBE, because round here it means ‘Out Before Easter’ “.
The tribute acts this time were the Chicago Blues Brothers show, Let It Be (the forthcoming West End show of The Beatles’ greatest hits) and the Abba tribute band Björn Again. Also performing were The Gypsy Queens and the BBC Big Band. The music from the Blues Brothers movies opened the concert and although their rendition of classics such as “Soul Man”, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and “Someone to Love “ though energetic were basically no better than music heard these days in your local curry restaurant – though that is a credit to all those acts trying to make their living in this way. Perhaps someone booked the Gypsy Queens thinking they did cover version of Gypsy Kings songs but they are a harmless enough bunch of international musicians singing a variety of classic songs such as John Denver’s “Country Roads”, “Americano”, “Marrakech Express” and “Volare”. Their lead singer, Didier Casnati, was particularly infected by “We love you”-itis! Though apparently ex–buskers he announced they had played for just 200 people in a restaurant in Rome on the evening before now performing in front of tens of thousands! The BBC’s own Big Band didn’t generate much interest even when joined by guest vocalist Madeleine Bell now in her 70thyear. (This, though unannounced, proved to be just the first of a few anniversaries this concert celebrated.) She was welcomed by Tony Blackburn as the “Greatest singer of all time”. After big band numbers such as “Flying Home” and “Opus One” she joined them for a few numbers including Duke Ellington’s lively “It Don’t Mean a Thing”.
It was only when the cast of Let It Be appeared as The Beatles circa 1960s that everyone started to party. It is amazing how – like with Abba’s catalogue – The Beatles’ songs are so familiar to everyone young or old. It is their 50th anniversary and they were paid tribute to with all the numbers anyone would expect such as “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Twist and Shout”, “She Loves You”, “Get Back” and “Hey Jude”. Unfortunately – good as they all were – the Paul McCartney lookalike seemed to be trying to perform a little too much as he is now – and of course we have had ample evidence this summer that his voice is not what it was. We were reminded that Björn Again have “been Abba longer than Abba” but there was nearly a stillbirth when their backing track had to be aborted and begin again. I was never a great Abba fan but I wondered why they appeared in outfits that looked left over from the Swedish Judo Olympics Team – I suspect they were miming but they sang all the hits anyone would expect if they have seen Mamma Mia on stage or screen. At least they got women especially onto their feet and moving as though it was a massed Zumba session.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and the concert organisers will now be having an inquest about how they tried to put too much of “good thing” into the main part that – technical problems notwithstanding – meant we were later going over to the Royal Albert Hall for the usual festivities. In the end it was clear we could have done with much less Alfie Boe and Il Divo, that Kylie Minogue would over-run and though diminutive in stature she showed herself to be a true megastar able to connect with the majority of the 40,000 in Hyde Park through her performance. It seems Alfie Boe has moved from opera to musicals probably because his voice needs amplification and now seems to clutch the microphone stand as though it is holding him up. I’m sure he charmed any hard-core fans but his lack of impact was not helped by his opening “You Are My Heart’s Delight” being sung in the original German without any English and he then compounded this lack of genuine communication with Lazzaro’s “Chitarra romana”. “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables was too intimate for such a big occasion, he messed up “O sole mio” by segueing into an Elvis-like “It’s Now Or Never” before a cover version – naturally on his new CD – of John Prine’s 1970s “Angel from Montgomery” that just went on and on and on. I’m sure Alfie Boe enjoyed his own version of it … but I almost lost the will to live.
Il Divo also never seemed to know when enough was enough and were allowed seven songs. When singing in unison they sound pleasant enough – something to listen to on CD when you are working or relaxing – but they showed me nothing that could justify 26 million album sales and their award at the Classic Brits of “Artist of the Decade” – unlike Terry Wogan who announced he was “Artist of the Decayed”! Unless he was not feeling well one of them – Urs Bühler – shouldn’t really be allowed so many solos, and it is clear how much the quartet owe to the Dean Martin lookalike, Carlos Marín, who has a certain charisma. Their songs included “Somewhere”, “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita and “Time to Say Goodbye”. They were followed by some joyful singing from the London Community Gospel Choir directed and occasionally fronted by Bazil Meade; they are celebrating their own 30th anniversary. The BBC Concert Orchestra – in their 60th year – under Richard Balcombe had earlier given us Walton’s Crown Imperial and to the theme music from Champions the Hyde Park Crowd applauded the achievement of Team GB in the Olympics and Paralympics.
At last it was time for Kylie Minogue – an artist in her own 25th year in music – and for the birth of grownup Kylie. She had undoubtedly been one of the real successes of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert earlier in the summer but even that made long-time admirers like me wonder should she really be singing after all this time in a sparkly Pearly King hot pants outfit and matching baker boy cap? She chose a night like this to debut some grand orchestral versions of her greatest hits that will be found on her forthcoming album, The Abbey Road Sessions, singing with her band and the full BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Cliff Masterson. Songs like “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”, “Slow” and even “I Should Be So Lucky” worked surprising well as Kylie channelled her inner Shirley Bassey slinking about in a wonderful red evening gown. The Gospel Choir shared the stage with her for an exuberant rendition of “Wow”. Singing “Spinning Around”, “Locomotion” and “All the Lovers” with their more familiar upbeat tempos cemented her triumph. She thoroughly deserved the cries of “Kylie, Kylie” that were called out at the top of their voices by many in the large crowd that had finally come alive en masse. If people were not sure before, Kylie showed that not only can she sing pop or ballads equally well; she is able to command an audience of many thousands in front of her – the sign of a true artist and not just a cultural icon.
So it was time to go over to the Royal Albert Hall in time for the Fantasia on British Sea-Songs, “Rule, Britannia!” and the familiar conclusion to the Last Night of the Proms. I suspect those watching at home and in cinemas (possibly even in 3D) were familiar with the concluding “high jinks” from any previous Last Night they had seen. Sadly the cameras struggled to pick out many groups in the concert hall with anybody particularly young in their number (unlike at Hyde Park) and often settled on a selection of Promenaders many of whom looked as though they had been to one too many Proms! Nevertheless much extraordinarily patriotic fun was had by all especially when “To celebrate this summer Britain has ruled the waves” a number of Britain’s Olympians and Paralympians were on stage to join Joseph Calleja in Team GB tracksuit and tee-shirt with a Maltese Cross in “Rule, Britannia!”. (Unfortunately these were a number of relative unknowns only the most avid sports fan would recognise.) Jiří Bělohlávek concluding his final season as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was presiding over his third “Last Night” The Czech conductor, in faltering Bela Lugosi-type heavily accented English, thanked his orchestra for their “Great musicality, enthusiasm and for the warm friendly atmosphere we have created together.” He went on to add “It was a real delight to make music with you.” He mentioned his pride in receiving an honorary CBE from the Queen and put it round his neck before the music of Elgar conjured up “Land of Hope and Glory”.
For those who like some good outdoor entertainment and community singing, as well as, seeing some of the Last Night at the Proms in an informal setting, the Proms in the Park concert is the place to be … weather permitting. 40,000 each year in Hyde Park can’t be all wrong, can they?
Look out for information about the 2013 BBC Proms season by visiting www.bbc.co.uk/proms.