Last Night of the Proms — firmly in the old tradition
Over two months of concerts the BBC Proms always go on a long musical journey. This year, they made a political one, too. The season opened with the soloist on the first night playing a version of the EU anthem as his encore and ended with the usual massed singing of “Land of Hope and Glory”. It felt quite symbolic.
With a vast audience across the world on television, radio and online, the Proms have become an invitation to grandstanding. No doubt that is why a group of Promenaders on the Last Night have taken to handing out EU flags, this year managing to outnumber the Union flags around the arena.
Otherwise, the 2017 Proms offered a solid, unexceptional season. There were fewer of the big, ambitious statements that characterised the previous decade. The year’s major cultural themes — the anniversaries of the Reformation and the Russian Revolution — were marked with a modest number of imaginative events, rather than exhaustively across the season.
Some doomsayers complain that popular music is on the increase. Proms devoted to big bands, film composer John Williams and Charles Mingus draw the crowds, but as yet they remain a handful, and the prominence they are given on television exaggerates the part they play. And how long will it be before Oklahoma! (another stunning night from John Wilson) gets classified as classical anyway?
All this led up to a Last Night firmly in the old tradition. There were the usual hits and misses. Among the former was this year’s new piece, Lotta Wennäkoski’s Flounce, which opened a toybox of playful sounds. Sibelius’s Finlandia, including its rarely heard patriotic chorus, marked the centenary of Finland’s independence and was given a rousing performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its Finnish chief conductor, Sakari Oramo.
The star singer of the night was Nina Stemme, who followed a wobbly “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by nailing a cabaret-like set of songs by Weill and Gershwin. What a brilliant showpiece Weill’s “The Saga of Jenny” is, especially sung and played with this sort of panache. Using Arthur Bliss’s arrangement of the National Anthem caught out most of the audience with its unfamiliar opening. For the rest, a good time was had by all.
On the two previous nights the visiting orchestra this year was the Vienna Philharmonic. Channelling years of tradition, the orchestra brought with it two programmes consisting of music written by composers who were residents of Vienna.
By far the better concert was the first one, in which Daniel Harding conducted Mahler’s Symphony No.6. As always, the playing combined cultured beauty of tone with an innate mastery of internal balance that made countless details of this complex score fall into place for the first time. Harding made sure the pace never flagged, guaranteeing an unexaggerated, down-the-middle, high-quality performance.
By contrast, the second concert under Michael Tilson Thomas was a subdued affair. Neither Brahms’s Variations on the St Anthony Chorale nor Mozart’s E flat Piano Concerto, K.449, with soloist Emanuel Ax, raised the temperature much. Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 summoned more momentum, but the surprise treat was the very un-Viennese encore, Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring, apparently being played by the VPO for the first time. It was good to see the number of women in the orchestra edging up towards double figures. These things get noticed at the BBC Proms, where the eyes of the world are watching.