Arts: Friends, countrymen, lend me your ears


THERE ARE mad dogs and there are Englishmen, as we know from Noel Coward. And even the stone cold sober among us will swear to have spotted both at Saturday's Last Night of the Proms. Union Jack ears were all the rage this year: pricked-up ears for the men, a droopy beagle-like design for the ladies (what kind of malicious person thinks up these things?). The Albert Hall was awash with them; it was like a scene from Gremlins, only more surreal. A colleague I've known for years sat to my right. He, too, had sprouted Union Jack ears. Only he didn't appear to have noticed. Pen in hand, he diligently, doggedly (oops) went about the job in hand. Another colleague had brought his young son. He listened intently to the music (yes, I'm getting to the music) while daddy made paper aeroplanes from pages of the programme. It gets to you, does the Last Night. Where there's a flag you wave it; or wear it. Everybody sings "Land of Hope and Glory" and "Rule, Britannia!" and "Jerusalem" (yes, even critics) - and stands to do so. Not to do so brings instant and unceremonious ejection. One of the "new" pieces on this year's bill of fare was called "These Premises Are Alarmed". Alarming more like.

As was the sudden appearance of Terry Wogan, fresh from Hyde Park where 40,000 more mad dogs and Englishmen, with umbrellas, had gathered for Proms in the Park. Andrew Davis urged us (he can be so strict) to chant "Hello Park" before accepting a platinum disc to mark 1.2 million sales of "A Perfect Day". His yearly report, received in relative silence this year (the odd kazoo blast notwithstanding), chronicled the ever-growing success of the world's greatest music festival. We no longer need to put that in quotes.

Where else would Henry Wood rub shoulders with Hugh Wood (no less a showman on the evidence of his Variations for Orchestra)? Where else would Gershwin show songs nestle up to a contemporary premiere? Thomas Ades wrote These Premises Are Alarmed for the opening of Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. In four fantastic minutes, it's constantly reinventing itself. Ades seemingly never reproduces the same sound twice. He has a dazzling future. So did Gershwin, only he never lived to fulfil it. Enter Thomas Hampson, opera singer turned lounge singer and sometime American hunk to lend new meaning to familiar Ira Gershwin's lyrics. "Dozens of girls would storm up, I had to lock my door", he sang, while girls in several private boxes frantically indicated that their doors were wide open.

Earlier, the French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, his scarlet jacket and socks almost as natty as his playing, made Variation 18 of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini sound just like a Gershwin tune. But even he, sartorially speaking, was no match for Hampson whose half Stars-and- Stripes, half Union Jack waistcoat was fitting attire for "Rule, Britannia!". She and Uncle Sam got along just fine.

Edward Seckerson

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