Monday, September 24, 2012

The Last Night of the Proms with the Poms

Dress Code for Prommers

I made it to the Last Night of the Proms, and am still lying down with smelling salts in an effort to recover from the experience. I will skim lightly over the whole queuing thing - it turned out to be a fizzer. I turned up just before 6 pm, the hour the doors opened, walked to the back of the appropriate queue and was given the number 137 by stewards. Twenty minutes later, after a bag check and the usual climb up the stairs, I was standing in a perfectly good position by a railing in the gallery, looking down - sideways - on the stage. Even when the hoi-polloi without season passes were admitted, the gallery was far from full. The arena, on the other hand, was packed to the gills.

There was a bit of eyeing off of neighbours along the gallery railing, and some attempts to claim more real estate than was strictly entitled (spreading of Union Jacks, nudging of shoes along the floor), but we all settled down to sit on the floor until curtain-up. I even met the same Portuguese lady from last night, who turned up and wedged herself in beside me.

Upon arrival I was at first a bit disconcerted to note that I was severely underdressed. Black tie, white tie, buttonholes, evening gowns, tiaras and furs were out in force. For those who didn't go formal, it looked like all-over Union Jack was the dress code. However, amongst the Prommers, down-dressing remained fairly wide-spread. And as for flags, once the auditorium filled up it was clear that despite the clear predominance of Union Jacks, any flags would do. Multiple countries were represented. I spotted Australia and New Zealand. There were a number of breakaways with Welsh, Scottish and Irish flags, some left-over Team GB numbers, all merrily waving or draped hither and thither.

The view from the gods.

The spacious, if remote, gallery of the Royal Albert Hall.

It was clear from early on that this was going to be a night of ritual. The BBC Symphony and Chorus ladies had eschewed formal black for merry red, green and purple long frocks. The gents wore white tie with carnations in their buttonholes. The conductor was the resident chief, a Czech, Jiří Bělohlávek. With everyone raring to go, off we set on The Last Night of The Proms.

The first half program was lovely stuff - high quality programming and performance. The highlight for me was a performance of the lovely "Songs of Farewell" of Delius - deliciously sad and encouraging at the same time, the pieces are a setting of Walt Whitman poetry about dying, written (or dictated) when Delius was incapacitated and close to death himself:

Now finale to the shore, 
Now land and life finale and farewell. 
Now Voyager depart (much, much for thee is yet in store) 
Often enough hast thou adventur'd o'er the seas, 
Cautiously cruising - studying the charts, 
Duly again to port and hawser's tie returning: 
But now obey thy cherish'd secret wish, 
Embrace thy friends, leave all in order,   
To port and hawser's tie no more returning,  
Depart upon thy endless cruise old Sailor. 

The excellent Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja joined us for some Verdi, Massenet and Puccini. His is a very impressive voice, and he was a big drawcard for me. Sadly, my position somewhere behind his left shoulder and four stories up did nothing for the sound quality, and I missed out a bit on his lustily delivered numbers. Our other soloist was a Scottish violinist with the very Scottish name of Nicola Benedetti (!) - she played Bruch's first violin concerto, and it was quite divine. Nicola herself has all the elements necessary in a classical music soloist - young, beautiful, virtuosic and looks fab in a luscious evening gown (we saw two - a white one and a black one).

Sighing over all this lovely music - and I must say that the Prom crowd are attentive listeners and appreciative applauders - we all took an interval break for icecream and G&Ts, revivified ourselves, and returned for the second half. This set out as it meant to go on with John Williams' 'Olympic Fanfare' composed for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (a very London 2012 choice), followed up with some more rousing party pieces and solos from Joe & Nicola (Joe's 'Granada' was great - the program claims it is the second most-performed song in the world: a Latino karaoke favourite, apparently).

Then things got serious. Our conductor took the microphone and announced that we had got to the sing-along part of the evening. The TV screens took us to crowds massed outdoors in Belfast, Caerphilly, Glasgow and across the road in Hyde Park. (I took a moment to be grateful for my indoor RAH gallery railing spot, and to feel a little ashamed of my queuing whining). Then we commenced what is apparently a regular ritualistic winding up of The Proms. Everyone - led by the arena Prommers - knew just what to do. While I had a vague notion that singing-along was involved, I had no idea what to expect. I was, thus, astonished! This is how it went:

First up, we all sang Rogers & Hammerstein's 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. Then there was a party-piece billed as Henry Wood's 'Fantasia on British Sea-Songs', from 1905. Henry Wood, you may recall, is the impressario who had the bright idea, 118 years ago, to stage Prom concerts. His 'Fantasia' is a collection of half a dozen bright pieces loosely (very loosely in some cases) based around a nautical theme. As the orchestra struck up the first of these - 'The Saucy Arethusa' from 1796 - I noticed with interest that the arena Prommers were doing a kind of on-the-spot jig, bending and rising gently from their knees in time with the beat. A peculiar sight. Some also began letting off what seemed to be party crackers. Hmmm...I thought.

Here's the 'Hornpipe' ridiculousness from three years ago.

We then had a nice solo cello bit called 'Tom Bowling', which was listened to respectfully, but with a certain air of anticipation. Turns out the anticipation was for the 'Hornpipe' - you'd know it if you heard it - which the program told me would be accompanied by "traditional clappings and stampings from the audience". Which indeed it was. One enterprising ringleader in the arena, who seemed to have a truckload of props with him, changed into his sailor's hat, brought out a hooter, and jigging, stamping and clapping abounded. So...the conductor played it all over again. Gosh....I thought.

There was one moment when the music brought a tear to my eye, and that was the rendition by the orchestra and chorus of 'Home, Sweet Home'...ah yes, there's no place like home *sniff* Perhaps an understandable reaction for a foreigner amongst a close-knit tribe celebrating some of its most mysterious rituals.

The Sea-Songs bit ended with 'Rule Britannia', which I was interested to learn dates from 1740, and was the finale of a masque by Thomas Arne about King Alfred. I can see it ending a King Alfred story, but of course it also does duty as a rousing Victorian Empire number. It has verses, which our tenor sang - he came out in a Team GB track suit, but opened the jacket to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with a Maltese Cross. Just so all Maltese understood that he was only doing this for the money or the glory, I suppose. It was good-natured, as was the crowd. Then a bunch of Team GB gold and silver medal winning Olympic athletes paraded out and helped the crowd sing 'Rule Britannia' one more time.

But I must tell you - unless you have actually experienced it, I am not sure I can adequately describe the experience of being in a 5,500 seat auditorium filled with British people furiously waving Union Jacks and singing "Britons never ever shall be slaves!"   Well, no. Let's hope not...I thought.

 'Rule Britannia' from three years ago. Somehow it doesn't seem quite so weird with 
the fabulous Sarah Connolly playing Admiral Lord Nelson.

But wait, there's more. And I was ready for this one: Elgar's 'Land of Hope and Glory', from 1901, a genuine Empire-rousing number if ever there was one, and sung enthusiastically by the flag-waving Prommers. Those fortunates actually in seats were even moved to rise to their feet for this one. It is indeed a fine tune - apparently Elgar himself recognised it as "a tune that comes once in a lifetime", and considered reserving it for a symphony, and recycled it a number of times. But in the hope of giving you just a flavour of the proceedings, here's the words (imagine 5,500 people singing and waving flags):

Land of Hope and Glory
Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee
Who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider
Shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty,
Make thee mightier yet.

I couldn't help but spare a thought for the working poor, unemployed and under-employed of Britain; and also to reflect that I, in fact, being of entirely British descent through colonial immigrants, am in fact "born of thee". But admittedly I didn't know all the words off by heart like the locals.

From five years ago, with our conductor Jiří Bělohlávek.

By this stage, overwhelm was beginning to set in. But there was more. Now we sang that extremely strange song, 'Jerusalem', based on the words of William Blake (1804). Now here's a real mystery. Forget the question of the inflatable banana being waved in the arena. What is this about? Having been in London for two years now, I have encountered numerous reference to this song. I believe I even heard David Cameron proposing that it be adopted as some kind of sporting anthem for Britain. There was that play with Mark Rylance about deep British mysteries which was entitled 'Jerusalem'. So what is it about? It is about speculation that Jesus Christ made it to England's shores as a child, and might have founded "a new Jerusalem" - and ends with a call to "fight" for just that. Is it jingoistic? Is it religious? (it is often found in hymnals). Is it just plain weird? One thing is for sure, most of those people lustily singing have NO IDEA what they are singing about. They just love the well-known melody, the tradition, and the bit about "England's green and pleasant land". And the "Chariots of Fire". I couldn't bring myself....Here's the words. You judge:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariots of Fire! 
I will not cease from mental fight;
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

The middle aged lady standing next to me, she of the encroaching shoes and the interval G&T, became really quite animated while loudly singing "Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring my arrows of desire!" It was a bit fearsome.

"Jerusalem" From three years ago.

Finally the jingoist and scary singing and flag and banana waving seemed to over. Our lovely Czech conductor made a very sweet speech, culminating in bringing out his recent CBE and hanging it round his neck, and the arena Prommers started an unscripted chorus of 'He's a Jolly Good Fellow'. There was just one last song: the National Anthem, and this was surprisingly beautifully done. The chorus took the first verse, and the audience the second (luckily the words to this were provided in the program). The entire orchestra stood while they played, and of course the whole auditorium was on its feet. People stopped being silly and became a little solemn. The arrangement was by the excellent Benjamin Britten, from 1967. It is said that the Queen, when she first heard it, declared that she had never been so affected by the Anthem, adding "and I have heard it once or twice".

Last year, Britten's lovely arrangement, with BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Chorus; 
BBC Symphony Orchestra Conductor: Jiří Bělohlávek

So on this more dignified note the evening ended - almost. The Prommers once again began an impromptu (or is it always done?) round of 'Auld Lang Syne', everyone in seats, gallery and arena joining crossed hands to sing the old Scottish number about remembering friends. I found myself hand-clutched by the scary lady beside me who just a few minutes earlier had wished to brandish a "bow of burning gold". As we disbanded and headed for stairs, loos, busses and taxis, I felt an impulse to wish everyone a Happy New Year or Merry Christmas -- but "Happy Proms" was all there was. It was just a classical music concert series, after all.

Barking mad, the lot of them. I mean that in the nicest possible way.

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