Part 16: Final flourish
Tristan Jakob-Hoff joins the Last Night crowds for an evening of joyful musical anarchy
11 September 2009 - 11:00pm
The Last Night of the Proms stands for many things. For some, it is a celebration of national pride, unity, tradition. For others, it is an anachronistic, jingoistic throwback. For me, and for many other Proms regulars, it's all about raising a glass – and the Albert Hall roof – to the strains of Elgar and C Hubert Parry.
Whatever your interpretation, you cannot deny the sheer, joyful anarchism of the Last Night. For those of us who have spent eight gruelling weeks standing up through Prom after Prom, it is a chance for us to let our hair down, launch amusing-sounding rocket balloons into the gods, and generally wreak havoc during the Fantasia on British Sea Songs. For a crowd that usually spends half its time shushing anyone who makes even the slightest hint of a noise, we are a remarkably relaxed bunch come the Last Night. Clapping along to the Pomp and Circumstance March? No problem. Honking during the conductor’s speech? Virtually mandatory.
The more relaxed the Proms gets, however, the less relaxed the staff organising it seem to become. The box office staff get ruder, the people handing out raffle tickets (to mark your place in the queue) become more rigidly rules-bound, and those in the powerful position of checking your tickets on the way into the hall becomes positively totalitarian.
I was quite literally screamed at by one of the latter for daring to claim some sort of special privilege as a member of the press. A friend of mine, meanwhile, nearly came to blows with another redcoat when he tried to leave the hall for a cigarette before the concert started. I do understand why they get this way: thousands of people are trying to get in and it is important to ensure only those with a legitimate right of entry should be allowed to get through. But such extremely unpleasant behaviour is simply uncalled for, and puts a damper on the rest of the evening.
So all of this got the evening off to a rather poor start, but things were soon set right once the music started. Highlights of the 'serious' music included the colourful Oliver Knussen opener, Flourish with Fireworks; heartfelt performances of the closing scene from Dido and Aeneas and of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly; and a rip-roaringly extrovert account of Villa-Lobos’s Chôros No. 10, which wasn’t actually that serious at all.
On the 'silly' side of the evening, nothing quite topped Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture for sheer ridiculousness – it featured parts for vacuum cleaners, floor polisher and rifles after all – but Henry Wood’s absurd, late-Romantic orchestration of Purcell’s New Suite came close. A couple of jazzy items in the second half – Piazzolla’s Libertango and an arrangement of Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away From Me – failed to convince, despite the spirited efforts of trumpeter Alison Balsom.
Then we were onto the traditional stuff, or at least the semi-traditional stuff. There were some intriguing twists to the usual line-up this year, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. Replacing the bugle calls with fanfares especially written for the event by six young composers (all aged between 14 and 18) did not sound promising on paper; but they turned out to be brilliantly imaginative little compositions, and I really hope this particular initiative will be carried forward in future years.
But then, but then. No Fantasia on British Sea Songs. It simply is not a proper Last Night without them. It’s not so much that Henry Wood’s arrangements are especially good, but they are superb for getting everyone in the mood for singing at the top of their lungs. A performance of a few items from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, no matter how vivaciously played, simply doesn’t get an audience in the right space to let loose with a rousing chorus of Rule Britannia. The latter was therefore a bit flat. Next year, please won’t you bring them back, Roger? We need our Sea Songs.
A friend of mine also argued vociferously that reversing the order of Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem was a mistake, but I didn’t really mind. I always enjoy singing them both, usually rather tunelessly. In fact, it is perhaps better to put some distance between Jerusalem and the dreary national anthem, which always pales in comparison to the greatest of English hymns. But all of these little tweaks and changes to tradition do rob the Last Night of some of its special magic, and of its great connection to the past.
So not a classic Last Night, by any stretch of the imagination, but it did the trick. By the interval, rumours were already circulating about we might be expecting at next year’s Proms, and if those rumours are to be believed, there is much to get excited about. So, even though the 2009 Proms Season finished less than a day ago, I’m already counting down to next year.
Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance music writer, critic, and a contributor to The Guardian. He has been a fervent Prommer for the last six years, and can be found every summer in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall arena, looking slightly faint...