Proms in the Park

'It was like a victory celebration.' Plans to stage an open-air Last Night of the Proms in Hyde Park were finally realised on Saturday. By Robert Cowan
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The Independent Culture
Speaker's Corner heard a brand new tune when, beyond surging crowds, rows of fast-food trucks, makeshift stalls and a large concave auditorium flanked by huge video screens, Jean Sibelius stole the air. It was 5pm on Saturday, and as Sir Colin Davis led the European Union Youth Orchestra through the Second Symphony's epic coda (filmed at an August Prom), Concorde roared overhead. A long-necked crane with satellite discs for eyes gazed from the edge of the complex towards the launch-pad spectre of the Albert Memorial a mile or so away. Long-term plans to share the Last Night of the Proms between the Royal Albert Hall and the open air of Hyde Park had finally been realised. Luckily, autumn had granted us one of her better days - clear and warm, until evening set in and a touch of chill brought a mass of anoraks out of as many rucksacks.

By 5.50pm Ed Stewart (of Crackerjack fame) was priming us for the first round of musical entertainment, snappy standards with the Piccadilly Dance Orchestra, some lusty singing by the Maesteg and District Male Choir and a highly entertaining sequence by the vocal group Cantabile. At 7.30pm, writer, critic and broadcaster Sheridan Morley took over the main first- half, which was being relayed live on Radio 2 and featured the BBC Concert Orchestra under Robin Stapleton. It was a sort of up-market "Friday Night is Music Night" that opened with Bernstein's Candide Overture then held the pace with a fairly unusual Carmen Fantasy (well-known tunes mixed in with some that aren't) where a brilliant James Galway momentarily slipped off course in the "Gipsy Dance". The Labeque Sisters pounded merry hell out a West Side Story selection, but the star of the show was the soprano Maria Ewing, whose vital, wildly over-projected singing seemed absolutely right for the occasion. Her Rosina ("Una voce poco fa", Barber of Seville) was both sexy and strong-willed, her Tosca ("Vissi d'arte") proud but vulnerable. And when, a little later, she returned with an idiomatic Broadway sequence of Gershwin, Coward and others, she met with storms of approval.

Night had fallen and, during a short interval, the stage was cleared and draped. Beaming up to the Royal Albert Hall brought Andrew Davis on screen and a variety of projected images on to the curtain. Malcolm Arnold's bold Rhapsody The Sound Barrier reminded us that the distance between the speakers and the rear-end of the park meant that the sound-track was fractionally out-of-sync with the video image. Still, the impact was considerable and the audio quality remarkably good. Voices came off best, with Puccini and a delicious French sequence (Offenbach and Berlioz) shared between Felicity Lott and Ann Murray, and an hilarious account of Rossini's "Cat Duet" (not programmed) where "Miss Ann Murray" caterwauled her "resentment" at "Dame Felicity Lott". The closing sequence must have kept virtually the whole of West London awake: Elgar, Wood, Arne, Parry, with more whistles, shouts and sing-along voices than ever before - 25,000 in the park, coloured lights glimmering everywhere, massed voices on stage (the Maesteg and District Male Choir plus the Royal Choral Society) and a packed Albert Hall - the biggest-ever "Last Night" audience with millions watching or listening at home. It was like a victory celebration and the suggestion of a possible repeat performance next year made them cheer even louder!