The Telegraph, 12 September 2015
|by Ivan Hewett
Last Night of the Proms, 2015, London, Royal Albert Hall
Prom 76, Last Night, review: 'Needs to recover musical vanguard spirit'
Just in time an Indian summer weekend arrived, to usher in the Last Night
with some balmy weather. From late morning the Prommers were queuing with
their Union Jack bowlers and t-shirts reading ‘Keep Calm – Go to a Prom’.
Inside, as the excitement mounted, it was the usual throng of waving flags
and whirring balloons. Then on came the BBC Singers, Chorus and Orchestra,
and finally conductor Marin Alsop in her trademark suit and red cuffs.
Things got off to a rousing start with Eleanor Alberga’s new piece Arise
Athena, which lent a touch of tropical joyousness to her own text in praise
of the goddess. Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto received a terrific
performance from young pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, the slow movement
beautifully meditative, the 3rd unimaginably brilliant. Then came the Credo
by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. It was spellbinding in the way it first
dissolved Bach’s innocent C major Prelude into jagged modernist anxiety, and
then miraculously reconstituted it, to end in a blaze of choral and
The mood changed to Last Night delirium before the
end of the first half, when star tenor Jonas Kaufmann let fly three Puccini
arias with his usual blend of charm and heroically ringing tone. After the
interval things took a brief American turn (this was Alsop’s idea),
beginning with Victory Stride by James P Johnson, where Ben Grosvenor proved
he does a mean stride piano. By now balloons were fizzing, and Alsop had her
work cut out, co-ordinating the different verses of Aaron Copland’s
arrangement of ‘I bought me a cat’, sung by audiences at Proms satellite
events all round the country and piped into the Albert Hall.
some Gershwin, more jazz, and another moment of Kaufmann-mania (when the
heart-throb tenor was pelted with knickers – could this have been a Proms
‘first’?), soprano Danielle de Niese appeared to lead a singalong of hits
from the Sound of Music.
Then we were on the home strait, with
Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance no 1, Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British
Sea-Songs and all the rest. In between, Alsop made a heartfelt plea for the
power of music education, pointing out that in Brazil, where she often
works, it’s mandatory for all schoolchildren. The Prommers roared their
So much for the Last Night – what of the rest of the
season? The core programming over the past year has proved to be in as good
a shape as ever, with no dramatic change of tone since Roger Wright quitted
the directorship last summer. There has been the odd disappointment, like
the Sinatra tribute from the John Wilson orchestra, and the odd annoyance,
like the daft decision to programme all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos
in one concert.
But there have been wonderful things too, such as the
Bernstein tribute concert, the complete Beethoven piano concertos from Leif
Ove Andsnes, and the epic performance of Bach’s six solo cello Suites from
Yo-yo Ma. As always there have been discoveries aplenty, such as Franz
Schmitt’s glorious late-romantic 2nd Symphony from the Vienna Philharmonic,
and some fine premieres, especially Epithalamium, Hugh Wood’s radiant
setting of John Donne’s poetry.
However there are potential problems
looming over the horizon. One symptom of these is the sizeable clutch of
populist events, whose role is to show the Proms can appeal to everyone. We
had among others the Ten Pieces Prom for schoolchildren, the Late Night with
Asian Network for young Asian-origin listeners, and aging clubbers were
given a nostalgia-fest, in the shape of an Ibiza-themed Late Night with BBC
Radio 1, hosted by Peter Tong.
These are not problematic in
principle. My worry about the populist events is that they don’t always obey
the first law of Proms programming, which is to aim for the highest musical
quality. The most egregious example of musical values losing out was the
Life Story Prom.
This allowed us a glimpse of that national treasure,
Sir David Attenborough, but musically it was thinner than the wing of those
South American bats Sir David is so fond of. As for the Radio 1 club-fest,
our critic remarked that it was “crowd-pleasing but not ground-breaking.” To
merit inclusion in the Proms, a pop or film event should be as original,
intelligently planned and high quality as any classical one.
another worry, connected to the swirling uncertainty about the BBC’s future
as a whole. At a time when the BBC feels embattled, its natural tendency may
be to cling to the Proms as a rock of stability. That could lead to a
creeping conservatism in the classical core of the programming, and a flabby
populism elsewhere. That would be exactly the wrong move. There was a time,
a few decades ago, when the Proms was in the musical vanguard. It needs to
recover that spirit.