Olympic Spirit ignites Last Night of the Proms

Published by Daily Mail

Prom 76: Last Night of the Proms 2012 (Royal Albert Hall)

Last Night of the Proms 2012

Members of Team GB and ParalympicsGB appear at the Last Night of the Proms ©BBC/Chris Christodoulou

There really couldn’t have been a more fitting climax to the 2012 BBC Proms season. The past eight weeks of world-class music have spanned everything from Beethoven to Broadway; following hard upon the patriotic fervour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee; running concurrently with the agonies and ecstasies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It has been a summer unlike any other – and Roger Wright, BBC Proms Director, knew he had to pull something special out of the bag to complement the national mood rather than try to top the bill.

And he did it. The programme was eclectic, patriotic, at times quite exhilarating, and (very wisely) significantly pulled back from last year’s rambling and tacky ‘Down-at-the-Old-Bull-and-Bush’ feel, which had us all singing about pappadums to the tune of ‘Nessun Dorma’, and gave us a pantomime Britannia dressed up like a Christmas tree, but outrageously deprived us of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Songs. No, this year was perfectly pitched and much better balanced between the classical and the ‘red, white and blue’. It was also broadcast live in 3D at Odeon cinemas across Britain, in addition to the open-air gigs in Belfast, Caerphilly, Glasgow, and the London ‘over-spill’ in Hyde Park. This was great access to a great British institution: the BBC does more every year to expand Henry Wood’s vision of making classical music accessible to the masses.

The ‘classical’ section this year opened with sparks (uncapitalised because ‘it looked better all lower case’) – a BBC commission and world premiere by 23-year-old composer Mark Simpson. It was a volatile three-minute ‘orchestral firecracker’, completed in three months (it must have been a late commission..) and rehearsed only once. The triangles tinkled, strings floated and brass boomed, as they always seem to in postmodern compositions. It was a nervously weird piece, and a strange opening choice.

This was followed by Towards a New Life by Josef Suk, which came to prominence at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games. It was good, stirring stuff; a call to arms with trumpet fanfares and rattling drums. But I was more transfixed by the Sikh gentleman in the BBC Symphony Chorus who was sporting a Union Jack turban. It was a delightful sight, and I hope the fashion syncretism catches on.

Through Songs of Farewell by Delius to arias by Verdi and Massenet, we moved to what felt like a sacred moment. In the Delius, the choir meandered with the cellos in a hymn to creation, and then transported us to the ecstasy of the final journey. And the Verdi was a moving recitative and aria sung by the outstanding tenor Joseph Calleja, struggling to reconcile love, honour and duty. He caressed Massenet’s ‘Pourquoi me réveiller?’ beautifully, and made it quite unforgettable.

But the highlight of the first half was undoubtedly Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, featuring the exquisite Nicola Benedetti. Through the Vorspiel allegro moderato and adagio she stood on the stage like Snow White, forlorn and vulnerable; occasionally gazing reverently into the heavenly dome of Royal Albert Hall, then genuflecting to underpin the cadenzas, her auburn locks wafting in worship of the rich, expansive theme that lies at the heart of the concerto. But then, in the fiery finale, she released her inner demon: Snow White had gone to St Trinian’s, with phrasing more than a little frayed at the edges. But nobody really minded: this was the Last Night, after all.

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Nicola Benedetti performs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms ©BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Joseph Calleja took us to the interval securely (and safely) with Puccini: ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from Tosca, and the best known of all tenor arias, ‘Nessun dorma’ from Turandot. He delighted us with his two top notes, falling from B to A in a moment of victory: ‘Vincerò! Vincerò!’, which seemed to herald the Olympic theme of the second half.

The TV audience was told by Katie Derham during the interval that we were about to be joined by some of our gold and silver Olympians. But we in the Hall had no idea. When
the second half opened with John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare and Theme (composed for the 1984 Los Angeles Games), the anticipation was palpable. Whistles began blowing, vuvuzelas blasting and balloons fizzing upwards to the dome. The Dvořák, Shostakovich, Leoncavallo and Lara were almost skipped over as the crowd rushed to belt out Rogers & Hammerstein’s ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

This segued into a sea of Prommers bobbing up and down to Henry Wood’s (restored) Fantasia on British Sea-Songs. And here came Roger Wright’s coup de théâtre, as a field of our finest Olympians, bedecked in their gleaming medals, sprinted onto the stage to join in a rousing chorus of ‘Rule, Britannia!’. By this time, the audience was in no doubt that Britannia really does still rule the waves: it was a powerful, emotional patriotic masque which soared into the stratosphere as the Olympian heroic spirit fused with national pride. Rarely has ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ been sung with such sincerity.

There was one final moment of this Last Night which is worthy of a mention: it was Jiří
Bělohlávek’s last major concert as Chief Conductor of the excellent BBC Symphony Orchestra. He not only emceed the evening with wit, grace and self-effacing charm: he bade us and his orchestra a sad farewell, to the rapturous applause of musicians and spontaneous cheers of an appreciative audience. And I was touched that he, a Czech citizen, was so proud of his honourary CBE from the Queen that he took it from his pocket and hung it round his neck before leading Team GB, ParalympicGB, and what felt like the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in a festival farewell like no other.

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Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms ©BBC/Chris Christodoulou

This glorious year of Diamond Jubilee and Olympic and Paralymic Games has at last restored some substance and meaning to a great British institution: long may it reverberate in our national memory.


2 thoughts on “Olympic Spirit ignites Last Night of the Proms

  1. Tim, you’re right! Sorry! I won’t redact my review though, not least because the fact that the two proms have somewhat merged in my memory rather reinforces the point! I think Susan Bullock *did* appear dressed like a flashing Christmas tree on the Last Night. It was, I recall, an evening of random bits and pieces.

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