Planning the programme for the Last Night of the Proms cannot be an easy task. There are too many people to please, and to risk annoying. For much of the international TV and radio audience, and I dare say a fair proportion of the audience live in the Royal Albert Hall, it is the only classical music they will hear all year; for others it is a celebration to round off a great music festival. The balance of the programme has to try and engage as many as possible, remaining true to the traditions of the occasion while keeping the format relatively fresh and enjoyable.
This year’s concert was a substantial and varied one, built upon the usual bedrock of BBC orchestral and choral forces. Both the evening’s main soloists were expected to span a quite extraordinary range. Trumpeter Alison Balsom brought polish and confidence to repertoire ranging from Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, through Piazzolla’s Libertango and Gershwin’s Shall we Dance to the cantor-like solo part in the newly commissioned series of fanfares by five teenage composers. Meanwhile, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly started with Dido’s Lament (many Promenaders will remember her performing the role complete in a past Proms season), continued with Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (rather a serious choice for a Last Night, but beautifully realised and received with rapt attention by the revellers in the audience) and duetted with Balsom on the Gershwin before returning for Rule, Britannia.
Malcolm Arnold’s 1956 Hoffnung commission, A Grand, Grand Overture, scored for orchestra with organ and solos for three vacuum-cleaners, a floor-polisher (Arnold’s own, I gather) and four rifles, was brought to us by a clutch of guest soloists ranging from BBCSO Chief Conductor Jiri Belohlavek (first vacuum cleaner) to Sir David Attenborough (floor polisher). All entered whole-heartedly into the comic spirit of the piece by playing it entirely deadpan – highlights included the initial tuning session to the oboist’s A, and the soulful vibrato mimed by violinist Jennifer Pike (a BBC New Generation Artist and former BBC Young Musician of the Year) on the tube of her Hoover.
The omission from the traditional second-half programme of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs in favour of excerpts from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks caused some controversy; they weren’t there last year either, but on that occasion they were replaced by an alternative Sea Songs setting by Vaughan Williams (one of 2008’s ‘anniversary composers’ as Handel was this year). While I would rather not hear the Wood at all than hear it cut, dissected and interspliced with extra bits and pieces by other people (as they have been performed at the LNotP in recent years) I do hope that the Proms schedulers see fit to restore the Wood version henceforth. Played in its original form, it is our one remaining true musical link with the founder of this magnificent festival.
After nine years since Rule, Britannia was last done here as a star vehicle for an operatic soloist, it returned like an old friend, albeit in Arne’s original orchestration rather than the familiar, heavier Sargent arrangement. With a nod to her fame for playing men in uniform, Sarah Connolly turned up dressed as Lord Nelson, complete with telescope and a sword which eventually produced a Union Flag.
Like the soloists, the conductor has to be multitalented, and first-timer David Robertson, the BBCSO’s Principal Guest Conductor, made a very respectable job of it. He was a lively conductor and a genial host, paying homage in his speech to the power of music in creating unity, and he maintained a sense of dignity in an occasion which can be a bit of a free-for-all.