The Proms always go out on a high, if you discount the last one whose interest is political rather than musical. In Prom 72, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra plus massive choral backing delivered a performance of Britten’s War Requiem which was awe-inspiring and profoundly moving. The late prom which followed saw the Tallis Scholars singing music by Part, Hildegard of Bingen, and Thomas Tallis to a packed hall in hushed silence.
In Prom 74 Jonathan Cohen and his Arcangelo ensemble plus distinguished soloists presented Handel’s own favourite among his oratorios, Theodora. Three hours passed serenely, thanks to the ever-superb Iestyn Davies and Benjamin Hulett as Didymus and Septimius, with fine support from the Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg, and – when she finally got the measure of the hall’s difficult acoustic – also from the British soprano Louise Alder.
Tallis, Handel, Britten – the progression of these concerts, followed by the imperial rum-ti-tum of the Last Prom, looked like having a mournful symbolism this year, as we watch government and Parliament in paralysis while the country sleep-walks into disaster. Like the now-lost pragmatic wisdom of our political tradition, our best music too lies in the past.
If there’s one thing I’ve always hated about the Last Prom, it’s the flag waving. But what is this? I am accosted at the door by a blue-clad lady bearing on her breast the words ‘Thank EU for all the music’, and she presses a flag into my hands: a ring of yellow stars on a blue background. Yes! I’ll take two, and I and my guest will wave them. This message needs broadcasting.
Indeed, it puts a completely different complexion on things, and I find myself ready for once to plunge into the sea of Victorian sententiousness and drum-beating jingoism and accept it for the harmless charade it is. Musically the evening is the usual rag-bag, but it includes an ambitious new choral work by Roxanna Panufnik entitled Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light which employs some lines of verse by Isaac Rosenberg and some visionary words by Kahlil Gibran as the basis for a musical confluence of all three Abrahamic faiths. The choral chants are punctuated by instrumental interjections to create a sound-world which is essentially Middle-Eastern.
Rarely-performed works by Hindemith, Berlioz, and Milhaud leaven the traditional Last Prom fare which is despatched with grace by bass-baritone Gerald Finley and new-star saxophonist Jess Gilham under Andrew Davis’s genial direction. But with Anne Dudley’s very singable new arrangements of popular songs from the First World War, I find myself breaking another of my personal rules: singing along with ‘It’s a long, long way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the home fires burning’ – and actually meaning it.
This, I think, must be for two non-musical reasons. First, it really felt that we were drawing for the last time on the reservoir of First World War folk-memory which has now been drained dry. Second, because it was plain – thanks to the forest of EU flags and the sea of EU berets in the arena – that what is currently emerging, in response to the threat of Brexit, is a spontaneous popular movement of a kind this country has not seen in decades. And the people in this Prom’s audience are very much part of it.
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