The 2017 BBC Proms Go Out in Style

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 75 – The Last Night of the Proms:  Nina Stemme (soprano); Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Lucy Crowe (soprano), Ben Johnson (tenor), John Relyea (bass), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 9.9.2017. (MMB)

Prom 75_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_6
Nina Stemme (soprano) sings Rule, Britannia! at the 2017 Last Night of the Proms
(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

KodályBudavári Te Deum
SargentAn Impression on a Windy Day
SibeliusFinlandia Hymn
WagnerTristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
AdamsLola Montez Does the Spider Dance
GershwinPardon my English – The Lorelei
WeillHappy End – Surabaya Johnny; Lady in the Dark – The Saga of Jenny
Henry Wood (arr.)Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (with additional numbers arr. Paul Campbell, Michael McGlynn, Gareth Glyn)
Arne (arr. Sargent)Rule Britannia!
ElgarPomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D major
Parry  – Jerusalem (orch. Elgar)
Bliss (orch.) – The National Anthem
Traditional (arr. C.T. Davie)Auld Lang Syne

I have watched countless “Last Nights” of the Proms on TV and, before yesterday, have been to two in person – 2013 memorably with Joyce DiDonato and Marin Alsop and last year’s with Juan Diego Flórez who sang Rule Britannia dressed in a fabulous Inca Chief costume and was given a Paddington Bear. All have had an international flair and that wasn’t just because there were international artists performing but mostly due to the number of foreign visitors in the audience, which is always high, as the Proms – possibly one of the biggest music festivals in the world – and especially the Last Night, have become increasingly popular abroad. However, the Union Jacks outnumbered all other flags and there was always a sense of patriotic fireworks in the air. Not so this year. The Last Night of the Proms 2017 will stick in my mind not just for a variety of outstanding musical moments but also because for the first time that I can remember the number of European Union flags clearly topped the Union Jacks. During the second half of the concert when all the razzmatazz and celebrations explode, it was a sea of blue with gold stars that flooded the hall. There was of course a large number of British flags but they were clearly not the majority. Pure chance? After all, there was a person outside giving some for free but not enough to account for so many. Or was this a deliberate statement by many of the Proms-goers? I heard a lady saying she was very proud to fly the EU flag and it was obvious many felt that way, present company included.

Whether you are for or against “Brexit” doesn’t really matter in this instance. The Last Night of the Proms is a party to bring to an end an outstanding celebration of music for that is what the Proms really are – a celebration of music. Music is an international language that touches and moves everyone independent of culture, nationality, native language or social background. Sakari Oramo in his speech said more or less the same in slightly different words. He then also talked in good-humoured way about the role of the conductor, how it has changed and what different nations/languages call the job of conducting an orchestra. It was good fun and welcomed by everyone in the Hall. But Oramo’s speech came of course in the second half and I am getting ahead of the game. The first part of the concert – some people like to call it the serious part or the real concert – began with the world premiere of a short piece commissioned by the BBC from Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski (b. 1970). This year sees the centenary of Finland’s independence and this didn’t go unnoticed at this Last Night. The short piece mentioned above by a modern day Finn, together with Finnish conductor Oramo leading the BBC Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus in a performance of Sibelius’s beautiful Finlandia Hymn marked the celebratory occasion very well. Sibelius originally wrote the piece in 1899 but subsequently revised it three times in different years. The version performed last night was the choral version of 1940 when Sibelius finally agreed to have words for it, as before he had always maintained “it [Finlandia] is not meant to be sung. It was written for orchestra.” The piece is uplifting and symbolises freedom. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a heartfelt performance of it, causing a few Finnish flags to rise up proudly in the audience. Another highlight was also a choral piece, Zoltán Kodály’s Budavári Te Deum from 1936. This is a profoundly touching, rousing piece, achingly beautiful, that makes one’s skin gain goose bumps. It was powerfully sung in all its glory by the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus accompanied to perfection by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Oramo’s baton. The four soloists – Lucy Crowe, Christine Rice, Ben Johnson and John Relyea – were excellent but it was Crowe who shone though she had the advantage of being the soprano whose part is the longest and most moving. According to the programme notes it was the first time ever that Kodály’s Te Deum has been performed at the Proms – hard to believe, bearing in mind the quality, beauty and impact of the piece.

Between Kodály’s Te Deum and Sibelius’s Finlandia the orchestra played An Impression on a Windy Day, Op.9 by Malcolm Sargent to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. It is an expressive piece, almost cinematic in the sense that one can hear the wind and the approaching of the storm in the clever music score. It was performed with gusto by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Oramo visibly delighted in conducting it. After Finlandia, Sweden’s Nina Stemme did full justice to her reputation as one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos alive. She sang Liebestod from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Her voice soared elegantly above the orchestra and her rendition was exquisite and poignant all at the same time. One could feel Isolde and what was going on in her mind, in her heart and the rush that finally death as an escape presents to her. After the interval, Stemme returned with the song The Lorelei by George Gershwin from Pardon my English. It is a sassy humorous song and to a certain extent a parody of Clemens Brentano’s poem Zu Bacharach am Rheine and of Heinrich Heine’s Die Lorelei. Stemme performed the song with sex-appeal and humour and one could see the siren in her singing, her gestures and expression. She followed it with two songs by Kurt Weill: the famous Surabaya Johnny, which she sang in the German original, and The Saga of Jenny. In both Stemme was at home. The dark tones of her voice in the lower register were brought out effectively in Surabaya Johnny. We sensed her passion, her anger for loving Johnny in spite of the rogue that he is. She brought out the dark humour in The Saga of Jenny with style, her voice gliding through it, expressively stressing the moments when Jenny makes up her mind. Stemme was superb throughout and perfectly demonstrated her talent for acting as well as her outstanding singing. Her use of languages is masterful and she seemed equally at ease in German as she did in English, as if she were a native of both. Her pronunciation and enunciation would make many native speakers feel envious. She topped it all with a rousing rendition of Rule Britannia in (appropriately) full Valkyrie costume.

We heard all the regulars of the second half of the Last Night, meaning of course Fantasia on British Sea-Songs, Rule Britannia, Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D Major and Jerusalem. In addition,  to mark American composer John Adams’s significant birthday – he turns 70 this year – the orchestra played the short piece Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance, which lasts only five minutes and forms part of Adams’s new opera Girls of the Golden West that is to be premiered in November in San Francisco.

Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were in great form throughout the evening and delivered the modern and the less modern pieces exceptionally well, floating through the “mucking about”, poor singing and generally loud enjoyment of the audience flawlessly. Sakari Oramo proved that he is not only a great conductor but also has an excellent sense of humour and is quite the entertainer himself.

I have a soft spot for the Last Nights of the Proms ever since I was a little girl in Portugal and I watched them on TV with my father, dreaming that one day I would be there to sing along enthusiastically and wave a flag proudly and happily up in the air. I have made that dream come true more than once but still the “Last Nights” never fail to move me in one way or other. I love being there and I always want to return for more. The BBC Proms in general and the Last Nights in particular celebrate music and music is not British. It is human, which is why we all love it so much.

Margarida Mota-Bull

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