PROM (76): Sakari Oramo Applies the Fin(n)ishing Touches to the 2014 BBC Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 76 – Last Night Of The Proms 2014: Janine Jansen (violin), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Ruthie Henshall (vocalist), John Daszak (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 13.9.2014. (JPr)

Gavin Higgins – Velocity (BBC commission: world premiêre)
Arnold – Overture ‘Peterloo’ (new choral version with lyrics by Sir Tim Rice: world premiêre)
Walton – Façade – Popular Song
Chausson – Poème
Tavener – Song for Athene
Richard Strauss – Taillefer
Khachaturian – Gayaneh – Sabre Dance
Ravel – Tzigane
Kern – Show Boat – ‘Ol’ Man River’ (arr. R. Williams)
Traditional – ‘Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho’ (arr. R. Williams)
Richard M. & Robert B. Sherman – Mary Poppins – medley
Ansell – Plymouth Hoe
Arne – Rule, Britannia! (arr. Sargent)
Elgar – Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D major (‘Land of Hope and Glory’)
Parry – Jerusalem (orch. Elgar)

The ‘Last Night’ transcends criticism because overall it cannot be cannot be taken too seriously as an evening of important music-making. It has always raised the question about what is this all for? A summation of the season that precedes it? An acknowledgment of important anniversaries? Or, as here, an evening where some music that appeared to have a theme of sorts is dispensed with as the warm-up act for the dumbed-down, jingoistic, let-your-hair-down, flag-waving musical bits and pieces that traditionally conclude this concert?

I suspect for many years there was a true swelling of national pride – for good or ill – building up in the second half that gave some real meaning to the singing of ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ or ‘Rule, Britannia!’ In something particularly ‘choreographed’ for TV the audience wave flags because that is what you are supposed to do. Factor in the four ‘Proms in the Park’ taking place simultaneously and it is now nothing really special and also rather indistinguishable from many copycat ‘Last Nights’ you can find performed in your local areas from time to time during the year.

Not that there wasn’t some pleasure to be had and the reason for that was the remarkable joie de vivre displayed by the valiant BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, Sakari Oramo, overseeing his first last night. I just wish the musical programme had not seemed to be put together as if selected from various pots like the draw for the World Cup; a fanfare, an instrumental solo, a composer anniversary item, some popular songs etc. etc. As is ‘traditional’ the first half of the concert had absolutely nothing to do with the second half. It opened with Gavin Higgins’s new fanfare Velocity that wasn’t actually a fanfare and had some lyrical moments; however, if you had added a woodblock it would have sounded quite like John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which I heard recently. The music immediately following – although allowing for reflection – was slightly depressing, beginning with Malcolm Arnold’s Overture ‘Peterloo’, commemorating the shameful massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Manchester in 1819 which was given new words by Sir Tim Rice full of rhymes such as glory/story, returning/burning, salvation/nation. A reasonably rapt attentive atmosphere having been established, unbelievably a Walton trifle then followed before Janine Jansen gave an elegiac account of Chausson’s Poème and John Tavener’s Song for Athene – remembered for its involvement during the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was a real ‘downer’ despite the expressive singing of the BBC Singers.

Finally there was Richard Strauss’s Taillefer a best-forgotten bombastic cantata for a 145-strong orchestra with soloists and chorus recounting the exploits of William the Conqueror’s warrior-minstrel at the Battle of Hastings. Composed as a piece of self-aggrandisement to celebrate his honorary doctorate what must Strauss have been thinking? The rarity of its performance was insufficient reason for another outing for his 150th anniversary. It was a waste of the talents of Elizabeth Watts and John Daszak (excelling in some of the composer’s typical high-lying passages for a tenor) who both sang for a few seconds and were then dispensed with for the rest of the evening – although Roderick Williams who also sang in it did appear again.

It was the broad smiles of Sakari Oramo and his ‘camping it up’ on the podium that made the second half bearable. He was the consummate showman and the perfect crowd-controller for all the shenanigans. I hope the Vienna Philharmonic were watching as he would be ideal for the New Year’s Day Concert. It was clear all along he had a Union Flag waistcoat on but when he took it off he had the Finnish flag on the back. In his speech – even though for once he did not have record-breaking audiences to announce – he did everything right, from the usual cheers for Sir Henry Wood, to proclaiming the power of music and demanding more prioritisation of classical music and the arts in schools, to ending with inviting us all to the opening night of the 2015 Proms season on Friday 17 July. He also made a self-deprecating joke about introvert or extrovert Finns and the Promenaders’ shoes that probably meant more to those born in Finland.

Costumed very appropriately Roderick Williams returned to give heartfelt performances of his own eloquent arrangements of ‘Joshua fit de Battle of Jericho’ and Show Boat’s ‘Ol’ Man River’: these performances probably came over well on TV but were not expansive enough for the vast Royal Albert Hall. Despite fine embellished singing this was also the problem when he returned in white tie and tails for ‘Rule, Britannia’. The second half sing-along also included a jolly new arrangement by Anne Dudley of five songs from Mary Poppins, led by Ruthie Henshall. Oramo warned the audience of the key change in ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ but promised to help them. The potpourri of musical items had also included a rampant ‘Sabre Dance’ and whilst Janine Jansen’s violin in Ravel’s Tzigane never had quite the extravagant gypsy, lilting, feel I suspect it needs, her La Cucaracha comedy duet with Oramo was an absolute joy.

The Prommers antics seemed very restrained compared to previous years especially during the downbeat first half of the concert. Looking at the most of them they seem to need to conserve their energies more because of passing years. There were some whizzing balloons, occasional party poppers and squeaks, beach balls, as well as, the familiar international variety of flags. It is these – which included a huge Jamaican flag flourished in front of me and some Irish and Ukrainian ones close by – that at least kept the proceedings from resembling a UKIP national conference. Who knows perhaps this will be everyone’s last year as a United Kingdom of four nations – if so, only the Union Flag makers will be happy … and what would the new one look like?

Jim Pritchard