Sunday, 9 September 2012

Last Night of the Proms Review

Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms (BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

 You get two concerts in one at the Last Night of the Proms. There are two overtures, two soloists, and enough endings to draw a line under even a concert season of this magnitude. The competing demands on the programme can lead to the impression that it has been drawn up by committee, and given the length of the evening, there were a handful of works we may have been better off without. The prommers didn't see it that way of course, and the audience's enthusiasm was certainly infectious, even if it did lead to applause at the end of, and sometimes during, individual movements.
The evening opened with sparks, a new commission from Mark Simpson. Perhaps the BBC had asked him for something like Stravinsky's Fireworks, a short, fizzing opener filled with innovative orchestral effects. As the more modest title suggests, the piece didn't quite ignite in the way that Stravinsky's so convincingly does, but it certainly got the concert going and demonstrated some impressive orchestration skills on the part of this young composer.
The first half lost its direction after that. There was a bit of everything in there, but the only truly memorable parts were the contributions from the fine soloists. Second on the programme was Suk's choral Towards a New Life. The piece has an Olympic connection, which is one justification for its performance. In fact, it is quite a Last-Night-of-the-Proms piece, a kind of Czech Land of Hope and Glory, although with a big tune that is closer to Crown Imperial.
Fun and upbeat music from Suk was contrasted on both counts by the Delius that followed. Songs of Farewell is as stodgy and opaque as anything Delius wrote. It is his anniversary year, so a presence of some sort on the Last Night programme is perhaps justified, but twenty minutes of this tested the patience of even the keenest of us. Good singing from the BBC Symphony Chorus though in both works. No BBC Singers this year – a budgetary constraint perhaps? - but their amateur colleagues proved more than capable of the task in hand.
Nicola Benedetti's performance of the Bruch First Concerto was the high point of the first half. Her complex but light tone had no difficulty in filling the hall, and the intimacy she can invoke, even here, provided the ideal balance to the pomp and grandeur of what was to follow. Joseph Calleja was on top form too. He delivered a series of mostly Italian arias in full Mario Lanza mode. But he is a singer with tons of personality, so there was never any danger this sounding like imitation. Why did he end the first half with “Nessun Dorma”? To celebrate the spectacular success of Britain's bid for the 2018 World Cup?
Everything changed after the interval, and for the better. The BBC SO gave performances in the first half that were no more than serviceable, though it is hard for an orchestra to shine in a programme that includes a long list of bleeding-chunk arias and twenty minutes of soupy Delius. But as soon as we sat down for the second half, it was clear that they had found their form. John Williams' Olympic Fanfare is the ideal piece for raising fervour, patriotic or otherwise, and it effectively focussed the rising sense of anticipation in the hall. Dvořák's Carnival Overture was another startling success, and in this, Bělohlávek's final concert at the helm of the BBC SO, it was an impressive demonstration of the Czech sensibilities he had instilled in the players.
A few short contributions from the two soloists followed, but nothing here to match their first half appearances. While Joseph Calleja was singing Grenada, I was thinking that his head voice is disappointingly thin. But when in the next number we all had to sing along with him in “You'll never walk alone” I suddenly realised that I don't even have a head voice, so full respect to the man.
There isn't really any point in discussing the musical merits of the evening's conclusion is there? Suffice it to say that Bělohlávek skilfully negotiated the boisterous crowd and gave a short but effective speech. When you've conducted as many grand operas as he has, the challenges of holding together an event of this scale must seem mild. The BBC SO took one small step towards gender equality with the first ever female euphonium soloist, one Becky Smith, in the Sea Songs. And there was a parade of Olympic medallists during Land of Hope and Glory. But otherwise tradition was strictly observed, giant flags, party poppers, silly hats and all.

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