CLASSICAL MUSIC / Party poppers, party poopers: Last Night Of The Proms: Silly hats, teddy bears, and some fine music, too

The Last Night of the Proms - either you love it or hate it. In fact it's possible to feel both about this weirdly British institution. In a way, it is utterly, utterly ghastly. Quite apart from the political dimensions - prayers for the return of the ever-expanding Empire ('wider still and wider') - there's the sight of thousands of one's countrymen and women reduced almost to hysterics by exploding party-poppers, nose- diving paper darts and balloons making rude noises during solemn cello solos (I wonder how much the musicians really enjoy that sort of thing?). And for some of us there's the added embarrassment of knowing that for many outsiders, this is what 'The Proms' means - not a uniquely adventurous music festival, offering by far the widest range of orchestral music in the country, but people in Eton collars, straw boaters and Union Jack waistcoats waving teddy bears along to 'The Sailor's Hornpipe'. One prominent journalist has even referred to this as 'the typical Radio 3 audience' - time for an emergency meeting with the image consultants, I'd say.

But I wonder sometimes if the liberal reaction to the flag- waving and patriotic hymn singing doesn't have an element of the knee jerk. Do the Prommers in the Arena really believe that old, battered Britannia can be 'mightier yet' - that as defence cuts gather momentum she will ever again 'rule the waves'? Having talked to one or two of them I don't think so. The people that bother me are the ones in the boxes, chandelier- like with jewellery and popping champagne corks in the more intimate moments of Vaughan Williams' lovely Dives and Lazarus. There are some there, I suspect, who really believe that the Prommers are celebrating Tory values, the free market, and stuff the foreigners. I noticed several European flags and one 'hello CIS' in the arena - nowhere else though.

Point number two is that community singing events are an endangered species. Apart from the rugby or soccer terraces, where else in England can people get together and sing words they all know to wonderful tunes - and let's face it, Jerusalem and Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 are wonderful tunes. It has been suggested that something less gruesomely nationalistic than Rule Britannia or AC Benson's words to the Elgar could be sung - but what? 'Spread a little happiness', 'We Are the Champions', a Lloyd Webber medley? You see the problem.

And then there's the perplexing fact that, as this particular Last Night showed, extraordinary musical things can happen. Not in the second half, I admit, but I've rarely heard the strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra play more beautifully than they did in the Dives and Lazarus in part one. And the performance of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast that followed was thrilling - a splendid choral contribution, playing with real electricity, and solo singing and vocal acting by Bryn Terfel that was exceptional even by his exceptional standards. It put Lorin Maazel's suave and emptily sensationalised Beethoven Nine the previous evening squarely in the shade. There's been plenty of talk about how you de-formalise concerts, bring back the sparkle to the audience performer relationship. This was it: despite the crassness in the behaviour of certain parts of the auditorium, the relaxed attentiveness of the Prommers and the sense of occasion instilled in the musicians worked a unique kind of magic.

Can the Last Night be changed? Can one reduce the alienating nationalism and rescue the positive features - encourage that element that still sees this as an essentially musical event? An acknowledgement of the increasing role of World Music (long may that continue) might help. And since the event is seen Europewide, we could try including national treasures from neighbouring countries: how about Berlioz's Marseillaise or the Slaves' Chorus from Verdi's Nabucco? Quite a lot of us know those too. But the problem, as a German colleague once said to me, is that 'in Britain you don't ask of something, 'how good is it?' You ask, 'how old is it?' ' Tradition is almost our only criterion of value. We're probably stuck with the Last Night of the Proms as it is, and with an international image as eccentric, blimpish and cute. Well, at least it sells.

(Photograph omitted)

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