Marin Alsop: the magnificent First Lady of the Last Night

Published by Daily Mail

Prom 75: Last Night of the Proms (Royal Albert Hall)

Marin Alsop

Marin Alsop conducts BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus ©BBC/Chris Christodoulou

A woman can’t possibly conduct this, bemoaned some. It’s a bit like asking one to reverse-park their Ford Ka into a not-so-tight spot. And an American? Good grief, it’s the end of civilisation as we know it, lamented others. It is as though the spirit of Wallis Simpson had returned from Baltimore to purloin the Crown of England. The Proms are international, sure, but the Last Night is a peculiarly British affair, and at all costs we must preserve this sacred institution from the BBC’s interminable trendy ‘modernising’ and its lefty notions of political ‘progress’.

What these partypoopers seem to forget is that some of this season’s most thrilling occasions have been conducted by outstanding women, like Sian Edwards, Xian Zhang, Rebecca Thomas and Ruth Waldron; and that the hallowed Last Night has, over recent years, been conducted five times by distinguished Americans like Leonard Slatkin and David Robertson, and three times by the brilliant Czech Jiří Bělohlávek. One does not need to be male to deliver an inspirational programme of music; or British to enter into the exuberant jubilation of a Last Night celebration. It is primarily a people’s event in which the audience reveres the music and buzzes patriotically irrespective of such trivia as the nationality and gender of the conductor.

The Last Night has, over recent years, incorporated elements of pantomime along with a few scrappy musical offerings which have become frayed at the edges (to put it kindly). Certainly, these have never quite managed to quench the stirring patriotic fervour (if you like it) or crass jingoistic nationalist imperialism yearning-again-for-Empire (if you don’t). But there was something a whole lot more honed and polished this year: Marin Alsop triumphed.

Some maestri conduct their orchestras from poses of stillness: a raised eyebrow heralds a crescendo; a frown a whispered moment of dolore, and a slight jerk of the elbow a burst of con brio. Alsop throws herself at everything with all limbs flailing. Dressed with starched precision in military black and red, her jigging legs and animated arms at times might have appeared like a soldier marionette. But her baton was manipulated by nothing but her spirit: the strings were hers to pull. She is a masterful technical operator, and led the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus exactly where she wanted them.

As ever, the evening was a beast with two backs. The first half opened with Anna Clyne’s energised Masquerade, a BBC commission and world premiere. I have no idea what it was about, but it was a brassy fanfare of melodious glory and a darned sight better than any other commissions I’ve heard this season.

This was followed by Wagner’s Overture from the Meistersingers of Nuremberg, the vocal depths of which seemed to set the scene for Bernstein’s ‘tonal and tuneful’ Chichester Psalms. The BBC Chorus and heavenly counter-tenor Iestyn Davies brought the entire Hall to the point of divine worship. We were at the altar of the cathedral, contemplating the glory of Adonai and the agony and ecstasy of existence.

This segued quite naturally into another wonder of creation – Nigel Kennedy’s rendition of Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending, which was quite breathtaking. Every unearthly cadenza was reflected in the intensity of Kennedy’s forehead and manic finger-work: he soared and spiralled like the prodigy he is.

But my personal highlight of the evening was the virtuoso mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. She gave no fewer than seven solo performances, opening with Massenet’s lush aria ‘Je suis gris! Je suis ivre!’ from Chérubin, which was delivered in full Barbara Windsor mode, as though calling time behind the bar at the Queen Vic. DiDonato is a true revelation, seemingly at home with everything from Handel’s Xerxes and Rossini’s La Donna del Iago to ‘Over the Rainbow’ and ‘Rule Britannia’. Her voice is sublime; her trills electrifying; her vocal chords tuned by God.

Interval wine downed and champagne flowing, we moved to the second half. Everyone knows what’s coming, so Bernstein’s ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ from Candide and Verdi’s ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from Nabucco had to compete with a bit of impatient flag-waving, balloon-bouncing, a premature vuvuzela and an inflatable banana (no, I have no idea). It’s a shame, because this was the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in all their blazing glory, at their purest and best.

The warm-up for the community sing-along was provided by an eccentric, gimmicky, not to say deranged Nigel Kennedy, who returned sporting a Villa football shirt to fiddle-duel with the orchestra in Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás. I have no idea how Marin Alsop held this messy, discursive episode together: it was clearly extempore with dozens of spontaneous insertions and wizardry inventions, but it delighted the audience no end.

The rest of the evening was foregone: ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘Jerusalem’, and Britten’s epic arrangement of the National Anthem. Though why these were interrupted (that’s how it felt) by Granville Bantock’s The Sea Reivers and George Lloyd’s HMS ‘Trinidad’ March I do not know. Personally, I still miss Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs.

First Lady of the Last Night? Certainly. Toast of the gala? Deservedly. But, frankly, I have no idea why this particular artistic glass ceiling wasn’t broken 30 years ago while Margaret Thatcher was still in No10. Why did the BBC never give Jane Glover the honour of leading the party? She made her Proms debut in 1985 and has delighted audiences over 13 seasons – even as recently as Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Yeoman of the Guard last year. It is really quite astonishing that Roger Wright has never extended the Last Night invitation to her.

But Marin Alsop is henceforth an honorary Brit. She has a warm sincerity, a passion for her art, and a great fondness for Britain and its people. This was not so much a Last Night of the Proms conducted for the first time by a woman, but part of a sophisticated personal journey woven through with a world of musical experience. I, for one, hope that this First Lady of the Last Night becomes the second, third and fourth. And then bring on the emotionally-stirring Xian Zhang.

But there’s no need for pink balloons or feminist statements on the podium, like ‘Multi-tasking Area, No Men Allowed’. Men, after all, can multi-task, too. There’s just no need to keep mentioning nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or social class: music transcends all the fissures and fractures of our common humanity.

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