BWW Review: LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS, Royal Albert Hall
The Last Night of the Proms is the culmination of the world's biggest musical festival. It's less a concert, more a cultural experience. The Royal Albert Hall is transformed with flags, banners, balloons and a tangible party atmosphere. The occasional glimpse of an inflatable flamingo or helium parrot just added to the evening's charm and eccentricity.
The opening number "Woke" - a world premiere of the especially commissioned piece - had the rousing start composer Daniel Kidane envisioned. The evening began with a strong sound and keen sense of anticipation.
The rest of the piece was a little nondescript, but with the buzzing atmosphere and huge amounts of visual stimulus, it was a good background to the audience settling into the evening and taking everything in.
The orchestra and choir were all in striking evening dress - the ladies forming a rainbow of brightly coloured gowns with just the right amount of sequins and glitter. The men's Union Jack bow ties, and even a Union Jack-print turban for one singer, added a hint of fun. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton had an outfit change for each of her appearances, her dresses getting more extravagant each time.
Manuel de Fana's "Three-Cornered Hat" picked up where the opening of "Woke" left off. It's easy to imagine the time when the stirring piece would have been performed at the Proms accompanied by flamenco dancers.
It made Laura Mvula's arrangement of "Sing to the Moon" even more poignant, as it's so gentle and soothing by comparison. The ethereal solo lines echoed beautifully through the Albert Hall. The first performance of Elizabeth Maconchy's "Proud Thames" also had a soothing quality, which evoked the Impressionist take on London printed alongside its description in the programme (Fletcher's The Pool of London).
"L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" from Carmen was the highlight of the first act. Barton performed with such attitude and sass; her facial expressions were a joy to watch, and that alone made the big screens over the arena worthwhile.
The cameras also cut to conductor Sakari Oramo partway through to show him with his eyes closed, swaying. He was letting the performers and the audience do their thing and savouring the moment for himself. It felt like everyone was so caught up in the music together that, just for a moment, he didn't need to take charge.
The response was rapturous, and Barton was absolutely exultant. Deservedly so! Her voice is energetic and strong. She moves seamlessly between registers, most noticeable in "I Got Rhythm", where it was great to see her enjoying the jazzy style change. The music seems to flow through her whole body.
Barton showed great stamina in the run-up to the interval, having started with the powerful piece from Carmen, moving on to Samson and Delilah, Don Carlos and Aida. It was during her numbers that the Prommers started getting really involved, bobbing in time to the music, as they're known for.
The atmosphere changed after the interval. Coverage had moved to BBC One, the stage had been decorated with colourful streamers, and a lot of the audience had a few more drinks in them. Not to mention that's when the iconic songs feature, which the audience are psyching themselves up to join in with. There was a tangible sense of excitement.
The first performance at the Proms of Percy Grainger's "Marching Song of Democracy" felt a little loaded. There's been months of conversation surrounding the hijacking of the event by so-called Remainers, with some feeling the debate shouldn't detract from the Last Night's essential celebration of Britishness.
However, since the EU Membership Referendum in 2016, more and more Prommers have been arriving with EU flags, and this year a crowdfunded campaign made sure it could be seen everywhere via blue berets with yellow stars.
Though festival director David Pickard hoped the event wouldn't be political, Prommers expressed their sense of patriotism in different ways. Additionally, Barton waved a Pride flag during "Land of Hope and Glory", which seemed fitting for the LGBT+ Rights activist. "Over the Rainbow" featured as a Pride Anthem, with several rainbow banners popping up, reflected in the lit-up backdrop on stage.
It was a great moment to celebrate the mezzo-soprano's impact and brilliant to see her so central at this point, celebrating her as a person. Her international acclaim is so well-deserved, and she is making the most of the platform her exceptional talented has earned her.
Returning to the small matter of the music, it was remarkable that so many people could make such a gentle, hushed sound during the Grainger piece. Especially when compared to the great walls of sound created in the final "singalong" numbers, the like of which I have never experienced before.
"Over the Rainbow" I've mentioned briefly, but it should also be said that the orchestra performed with an elegant subtlety here, with their virtuosic accompaniment lifting Barton's voice and allowing it to shine out.
This year marks what would have been Henry Wood's 150th birthday. He's referred to in the programme as "the first great British conductor" who conducted the Proms from their conception. His bust is loaned from the Royal Academy of Music every year to preside over the festival.
The decoration of the bust at the beginning of the concert was met with rapturous applause, and Wood's arrangement of "Fantasia on British Sea-Songs" seemed very special under the circumstances.
"Hornpipe: Jack's the Lad" was energetic and fun, and it was great to watch the whole Hall bobbing up and down in time. "Danny Boy" is always wonderful to listen to and is guaranteed an emotional response. It's lovely to see the flags of Ireland, Scotland and Wales being raised along with "their" songs.
"Rule Britannia" and "Land of Hope and Glory" will always be spectacular. It's why people want to go to the Proms, to join in. It's why people watch at home, to hear the voices raised together. There were excellent moments when the Prommers, knowing the music perfectly, let off party poppers and released balloons in time to the music.
Some rebellious singers did the same, which was a nice touch of anarchy. The lights flashing in red, white and blue just added to the overwhelming visual spectacle and felt slightly tongue-in-cheek with the surfeit of patriotism.
At no other concert will you hear the likes of so many voices raised together to belt out the same songs with a full orchestra and choir also savouring the highlight of their year.
Unfortunately, the National Anthem felt a little flat. While Benjamin Britten's arrangement is stunning, and powerful, it leaves the audience to join in with the lesser-known second verse, which perhaps explains why it didn't have the same impact as "Rule Britannia" or "Land of Hope and Glory".
The traditional "Auld Lang Syne" was the perfect culmination to such a special evening. Orambo's speech focussed on social media as a double-edged sword, both isolating and connecting people. He talked about the power of live music to bring people together and to live in the moment.
"Auld Lang Syne" is an ideal illustration of this, as everyone crosses their arms and joins hands to bob along and sing once more at the top of their lungs.
The Last Night of the Proms is completely unique as a concert. Nothing even comes close to the atmosphere, the noise, the quality of the music, or just the excitement and aura surrounding it. The festival is about the Prommers, who stand for hours to get up close to the amazing music on offer through the season.
They raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity, and their outfits and banners are as much a part of the visual prowess of the show as the evening gowns and brightly lit stage backdrops. Their clapping and stamping and bouncing along is not a response to the music, it's a part of it.
But there's a danger that they're taking over. The role of the arts in political discourse is a discussion for another day but, as for the Proms, I hope it doesn't become another arena for political controversy. It's a night for fun and excess, to celebrate talent and what it is to be British.
On the Last Night of the Proms, it's a time to revel in the history of the occasion and the country, and to look to the future of the talent that's on display.
Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on 14 September.
Photo credit: Chris Christoldoulou