Royal Albert Hall, London
It's the end of term. The Albert Hall arena is full of well-behaved schoolchildren playing at being naughty. The women of the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra are in their best frocks. Flags wave, deflating balloons whizz up in the air, and as conductor Edward Gardner strides off the platform there's a streamer stuck to his heel.
Yes, it's the Last Night of the Proms, which as the evening progresses has an increasingly tenuous connection with the otherwise cosmopolitan and forward-looking music festival it represents to audiences around the world. But at least there's a connection.
Over the road, the London Proms in the Park offered Katherine Jenkins and Russell Watson; Josh Groban had cancelled, but if he had sung the three together would surely have counted as a royal flush in some strange, easy listening poker game. There was also Westlife and, er, Rolf Harris. Why?
Elsewhere in the season the Proms showcases dozens of charismatic rising classical artists who could deliver the goods and who might relish the exposure. Outside the hall, the Proms brand seems to have become attached to another exercise in giving people what they already know they want.
Inside the hall, the concert began with new music, albeit only a few minutes of it. Commissioned by the Musicians Benevolent Fund, Peter Maxwell Davies's Musica Benevolens is a kind of choral fanfare, three sections of almost simplistic melody or chant punctuated by more complex orchestral weaving, which, in context sounds starkly less secure. The final peroration made quite an impact, with six military trumpets cartwheeling around the music of their orchestral counterparts.
The Hyde Park audience did at least get a live performance from pianist Lang Lang, who could probably teach Ronan Keating how to work a crowd. Inside the hall, too, he seemed the right soloist for the occasion, and with Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 he was playing the right piece. Other pianists have found more to say with this music, yet there was plenty that was thoughtful and tender, and the showiest passages had an irresistible cat-and-mouse playfulness. He was even more teasing in Chopin's Grande Polonaise Brillante.
Energetic under Gardner, the orchestra showed its mettle in Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin suite, and the unaccompanied choir was touching in Percy Grainger's arrangement of the Scottish folk song Mo Nighean Dubh. Including Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra was perhaps taking the Proms' founding educational mandate a bit far, but the orchestra breezed through it, and Jenny Agutter brought Wendy Cope's new narration to life.
Soprano Susan Bullock sang Rule Britannia dressed as a Valkyrie bearing British symbols, a flashing daffodil on her breastplate, imperious even as her winged helmet fell off. She was less in her element leading singalongs of Climb Ev'ry Mountain and You'll Never Walk Alone. But in the first half she had been stunning in Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene from Wagner's Götterdämmerung, her voice soaringly, movingly direct. This is the kind of singer the Last Night should be celebrating.
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