The Last Night of the Proms isn’t really a concert at all; it’s two very different concerts put on one after the other. The first is something like what we’re used to from a Prom, with big-name soloists performing alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Chorus in world premières and classic works from the repertoire. The second is more of a pops concert, featuring the same orchestra, choir and soloists, but with classic British tunes on the programme, and singing along is highly encouraged. And if there are really two concerts cunningly disguised as one, why not review them separately too?
The first half kicked off with Sparks, a world première from the young British composer Mark Simpson. Though only three minutes in length, this work was a pleasing and glittering display of orchestral colour, and was virtuosically performed by the BBC SO. Following on from this the BBC SC got to their feet for Josef Suk’s rousing march Towards a New Life, another short but sweet work, full of zeal and hope, though the hope seems fulfilled only in the text and not in the music. The third item, and the last without a soloist, was the final bit of Delius in this year’s Proms season, Songs of Farewell. There are wonderful moments here, with beautiful chords, but these are brief and don’t link together very well, making the work remarkably dull overall, as widely noted in the twittersphere.
Joseph Calleja perked up the mood with warm-blooded and exciting renditions of arias by Verdi and Massenet, before Nicola Benedetti brought the house down with her performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto, which had more energy and excitement in the finale than any other performance I’ve ever heard. However, the crowning jewel of the first half was Calleja’s second appearance, with Puccini’s two most famous tenor arias. It’s brave for any tenor to sing “Nessun dorma” in concert, but pairing it with “E lucevan le stelle” borders on foolhardy. Calleja proved himself up to the challenge, delivering both arias with incredibly beauty of sound and depth of feeling. “Nessun dorma” was especially moving, heart-stoppingly beautiful in its emotion but still controlled vocally.
The second concert isn’t really something that can be reviewed like other concerts. Not only is it more or less the same every year, but its audience participation makes it unlike any other Prom experience. David Karlin did a very good summing up of the mood and set-up in last year’s review, so this year I thought it would be best to do something a little different.
The Bachtrack/OSA LNOP Awards
Welcome to our first-ever LNOP Awards, marking the best and strangest of Britain’s biggest classical music event!
This was a difficult one to judge. There was a very nice Union Jack turban worn by one of the BBC SC tenors, which deserves mention, though sadly only briefly in contention for the award. There were some other amazing Union Jack outfits, and right up there was a Union Jack hat, with a waving flag coming out of the top; well done to whoever that was! One of the regular prommers who always attends in his Lycra cycling outfit wasn’t going to let a silly thing like the Last Night mess with tradition, and wore a Lycra top with black tie printed on it, which came a very respectable second. But the winner had to be Nicola Benedetti, who wore not one, but two incredible dresses during the night, and proved that two is always better than one!
Most Valuable Player
The BBC SO as a whole were on fine form this year, but there were some notable individual performances too. Clarinettist Richard Hosford was really wonderful in his solos, and the cello solo in the Fantasia on British Sea Songs was played beautifully by Susan Monks. One performance, however, shone slightly brighter than the rest, not least because of its incredible consistency. Being a piccolo player is very hard at the best of times, but in music like this, where almost every piece is a piccolo solo from start to finish, it’s particularly difficult – and Becky Larson rose to the challenge, playing beautifully the whole night through.
Strangest Flag Choice
As ever, there were a great many flags on display this year, mostly Union Jacks, but also a surprisingly large German contingent in the stalls. Someone had a very large Cypriot flag in the balcony, which seemed an odd choice, and there were two very large flags of Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium), which were waved in unison throughout the night. However, it was a late entry which got the prize, when someone whipped out the flag of bmi, a British airline. Why, we’ll never know, but at least it amused the audience and provided some Twitter fodder for Petroc Trelawny.
Best Surprise Appearance
This is something of a fake category, as there really was only one surprise appearance, but it should nonetheless be noted. Someone somewhere at the BBC had the stroke of genius to bring some of the British Olympic medallists to the stage. As if the LNOP isn’t enough of a patriotic Britain-fest on it’s own, I was now slightly overcome with pride at being born here. If anyone thought patriotism was dead in the UK they were well and truly proven wrong this year.
Lifetime Achievement Award
No awards ceremony would be complete with a Lifetime Achievement Award to round it off, and though all those whose hard work went into this year’s Proms season deserve recognition, there is one man deserving of special mention. Jiří Bělohlávek has stood at the helm of the BBC SO for the last six years, and in that time has given some wonderful performances with the orchestra, including a thorough exploration of Czech music, with the complete symphonies of Martinů, repertoire so seldom heard in this country but deserving of greater recognition. Not only that, but he’s embraced British music whole-heartedly, conducting works by Elgar, Walton, Britten and many, many others. He’s been a fantastic influence on British musical culture, always for the better, and he will be sorely missed.
I’m a massive musical snob. I tut when people clap between movements, I glare at coughers, and I avoid gimmicky concert programmes like the plague. I came to the Last Night of the Proms expecting not to like it, even hate it, but unexpectedly loved it. I couldn’t resist the patriotic atmosphere, the quirky fun of it, and best of all, the singing. I’m a Last Night of the Proms convert, and hope to be back there again before too long!
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP