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Proms 2009: Prom 76 – Last Night of the Proms

September 13, 2009

Having got to the end of the Proms season I think I can confidently confirm that I hate the Last Night. Little of what I heard or watched last night prompted me to think otherwise.

I should be clear. I am in no way averse to partying. More importantly, having attended considerably more Prom concerts last year and (perhaps) got myself more emotionally involved in last year’s season I could absolutely see how it was the Last Night was something difficult to avoid. I wanted the ‘full stop’ tradition and frivolity of the final concert. It was as though I owed it to myself.

Last year I had wanted to experience it too. I wanted to (and did) go through the hours of queuing and roll calls. I wanted to get myself a carnation. I wanted to sing triumphantly along to Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory. It wasn’t because I was feeling all jingoistic, just that I felt as though I deserved that shameless indulgence in pointless tradition.

This year however, professional responsibilities influenced my decision not to attend in person. I couldn’t justify taking an afternoon off work to start queuing and whilst I know I could have slipped in at the back (and had an invite to the party afterwards) working all day made the prospect of traveling to the Albert Hall considerably less appealing.

We had HD television however with Dolby Digital stereo (when the signal didn’t drop out). The shot would be glorious I thought. I could enjoy from the sofa. We could have some kind of Mediterranean picnic food and a few glasses of wine instead. That would be nice.

Previous years have reminded me that the Last Night is very different from the usual concerts. The music is shorter for a start. No large scale symphonies to blow you away, no hefty concertos to get your teeth into. No ill-conceived commissions to judge. Instead it’s bite-sized renditions with strong melodies and tub-thumping beats. This isn’t mainstream. This is party music.

But as with nearly all parties I attend (and similar to the feelings I had the night of the Ukulele Prom) I couldn’t help watching the screen and feeling a little bit disconnected from the season. I’m not talking physically disconnected from the hall, more that a different crowd was there inside the hall. All the usual television signposts adhered in a usual concert (ironically the ones which nearly always antagonise me anyway) had been discarded in favour of snatched chats between Clive Anderson and his guests in the box. Cameras seemed to swoop all over the hall from every conceivable angle at nearly every conceivable moment (note to self – I should have been a television director).

Costumes were unfeasibly bold and brash, some pieces incongruous. As good as the Vila Lobos piece was, it wasn’t until the final thundering chords belted out by the chorus did it become clear why it had been included – because it would grab attention – and yet the work itself was strange in isolation. What was the point ? Why had Lobos written it? What was the context. Yes, I know I could read the programme notes – they’re on the website – but as a viewing experience it seemed strange not knowing at the time. The problem was there was no time. No time at all. We had to thunder through the programme.

In Alison Balsam’s Haydn Trumpet Concerto I did – I’m sorry to say – hear more split notes than I had expected (although I acknowledge the Last Night is hardly the best solo giving experience) and I’m almost certain I heard some evidence of strange ensemble playing.

But it’s a party Jacob! Lighten up. If the audience want a party then why should the players be held up to the same scrutiny they were during the season? Shouldn’t they be able to let their hair down too?

Maybe they should. Maybe I should stop being such a grumpy arsehole. Maybe I should remind myself that perhaps if I’d been a happy bunny during the season I would have overlooked all of those things and entered in to the spirit of things a little more.

I can only really explain how it seemed at that moment in time (and 24 hours later). I liked the Hoover piece. Loved it in fact. It sent up the pomposity of some modern music concerts in a fun way. It offered something memorable to proceedings. Jiri Beholaklavek’s obvious mastery of hamming it up with his hoover was amusing although I wasn’t entirely convinced that Jennifer Pike needed to be there or why Martha Kearny or Rory Bremner for that matter. Double Bassist Chi Chi’s role as riflemen was justified given that she’s a) gorgeous b) on Radio 3 and c) a Proms pundit. Her cohort Goldie behind her did, I’m afraid, look rather like he’d escaped from a nearby care home.

Strangely enough, it was the Henry Wood orchestrations of Henry Purcell’s music which were enjoyable – possibly the only way I’ll happily consume Baroque music is if it’s multi-layered with instrumentation to the point it sounds ridiculously overblown. So too, conductor David Robertson’s speech at the end of the concert. It may have been his firs Last Night Of the Proms, but his first address demonstrated he’s already mastered a dry sense of humour. He should settle in well.

But despite these things, what I realised was that the Last Night of the Proms with its links to everyone across the country, is primarily a TV event. An event which looks fantastic in HD and consequently needs to be produced as a TV show. That’s why it is such a bitty programme. That’s why hoping it will meet the same criteria other concerts in the season do is a pointless wish.

And because it’s a TV event – a TV party – it’s little wonder I didn’t connect with it (and wouldn’t have done if I’d been in the hall either). It felt different from the thing I love about the Proms. I’m there for the music. I’m there to hear something stunning and gripping. I’m after an emotional response to something I’ve heard or seen. The Last Night of the Proms will never do these things.

  1. Chris permalink

    Well it was our First Last Night in the Hall, having been to a few Proms in the Parks over the past decade, and it was very interesting to compare the two visavis atmosphere. Surprisingly, I found the celebrations in the Hall remarkably reserved in comparison to the atmosphere in the Park. *Could* be something to do with the fact that you can’t take alcohol into the Hall *even* in plastic containers *EVEN* though the people in the boxes behind us *COULD* have alcohol *IN GLASS GLASSES* – this is definitely a double standard AND I AM NOT IMPRESSED.

    Moving on. Musically we really enjoyed the first half. To our uneducated ears there was not a duff piece or performance there, and actually the Villa Lobos at the end was breathtaking. We loved the Trumpet Concerto and I even found the Mahler Miserabler Lieder entertaining to listen to.

    The Hoover overture was wonderful, from our seats we had best view of David Attenborough absolutely loving being part of it. We did however miss the Fantasia on Sea Songs, and am I right in thinking all the biggies at the end were in the wrong order? I tend to think that there’s not much that can follow Jerusalem normally.

    Charming moments were the six young composers taking the applause for the trumpet calls to the Parks – they looked so embarrassed at the attention they were receiving. It was also funny to see David Attenborough and Goldie resuming their seats in the Hall and looking generally embarrassed at what fools they had made of themselves.

    In a Monastery Garden? What was all that about then? Talk about lightweight.

    On the bad side, our cheap hotel in South Kensington was pretty rancid. On the good side, it did give us the freedom to continue to consume post Prom drinkies at Imperial College until the very small hours!

    Amazingly, our PVR did actually record something we had told it to, so I shall be interested to compare our live experience with the TV viewers’.

    Jon I hope you return to next year’s season with an optimistic mind and a sense of the Proms of Old! (I’m sure you will!)

  2. I don’t know what’s your problem or why you find fault with everything. Your comments are a raggedy wet towel on a night of fun. Who cares if the costumes are garish or the jusic short?And by the way, it’s VILLALOBOS – not LOBOS.

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