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 orchestral glory.

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.

After 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 approval.

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.

I have 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.

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