So it’s come to this: Jiri Belohlavek, Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, demoted to playing vacuum cleaner while his Principal Guest Conductor, David Robertson, gets to preside over “Land of Hope and Glory”? Allow me to explain.
For those of you who weren’t privy to goings on at this year’s Last Night of the Proms, Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture – which might be subtitled “Carry On Cleaning” – has special requirements for household appliances and for Sir David Attenborough and Stephen Hough (floor polishers) what more stimulating diversion could there be from the mundane business of seeking out rare animal species or playing Tchaikovsky on a Steinway? If ever the world doubted our eccentricity, this year confirmed it with the Last Night beamed live across four continents to a cinema near you: Australia, New Zealand, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood?
No Last Night has ever been so far-flung or, I have to say, so satisfying musically. The jokes and jingoism aside, David Robertson did a great job as master of ceremonies, keeping an orderly house, relating well to his boisterous audience, and even instructing them in the art of a clean finish to “Land of Hope and Glory”: “The final sound is a “T” and you are a nation built on Tea!” And in the traditionally “serious” first half he even managed a few rather slick performances.
Proceedings began with Oliver Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks – which is Stravinsky’s Fireworks with knobs on – before slipping majestically into Henry Wood’s New Suite – which is Purcell with knobs on: a grandly Edwardian take on the great English composer’s celebrated airs, well-upholstered and buttressed, of course, with organ. “Song of the Birds” provided a quirky premonition of another Prom “first” – Ketelbey’s In a Monastery Garden with its own ornithological effects – and a rather more exotic birdsong pulsating through Villa-Lobos’ Choros No.10, “Rasga o coracao”, a stunning first half finisher, its soaring ballad borne aloft on itchy percussion.
The artistry of Alison Balsom was celebrated, too. She looked like a model who’d just been handed a trumpet for some kinky fashion shoot but played Haydn, Piazzolla, and Gershwin with knowing style and great finesse. And the evening’s other star – Sarah Connolly – was in glorious voice silencing the hall with some aching ornamentation in Dido’s Lament of Purcell and really connecting in a special way with the pathos of youthful disappointment in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.
And where else could she have dressed up as Nelson for Rule, Britannia!? Asked and answered.