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Last Night of the Proms – ‘Prommers roared their approval for power of music education’

14th September 2015

Always the same, always a little different. Getting the balance right at the Last Night is always tricky, though there are some things that are simply immoveable. Depriving Prommers of their chance to sing Jerusalem a second time as, they always do, would probably lead to an insurrection. But overall there’s plenty of room to vary the formula.

This year’s Last Night got it pretty much right. The weather turned, just in time to usher in the Last Night with some balmy weather. From late morning the Prommers were queuing with their Union Jack bowlers and t-shirts reading “Keep Calm – Go to a Prom”, while German tourists took photos. Inside, as the excitement mounted, it was the usual throng of waving flags and whirring balloons. Then on came the BBC Singers, Chorus and Orchestra, and finally conductor Marin Alsop in her trademark suit and red cuffs.

The first half had moments of real musical value. Jamaican-born composer Eleanor Alberga launched things in style with a joyous setting of her own text in praise of the goddess Athena. Then came young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, to give an electrifying performance of Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto. He summoned a beautifully meditative, pearly tone in the second movement, where just for a moment the balloons stopped fizzing, and you could hear a pin drop. The quicksilver finale he tossed off with unimaginable brilliance.

True, there was one deeply odd juxtaposition after that, where the gravely serious Credo of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was shoved up against the uproarious high jinks of Richard Strauss’s tone poem about the prankster of German folk legend Till Eulenspiegel. Also the performance of Strauss’s great portrait didn’t really fizz as it should, until the very last minute. But Pärt’s piece was a wonder, in the way it first dissolved Bach’s innocent C major Prelude into jagged modernist anxiety, and then miraculously reconstituted it, to end in a blaze of choral and orchestral glory.

Then came a Proms “first”, as heart-throb German tenor Jonas Kaufmann was pelted with some rather classy lady’s knickers, after his heroic, ringing performance of three Puccini arias. This was a historic moment. I reckon throwing knickers at tenors will now become a cherished Proms institution, like shouting “Heave-ho!” when the piano-lid is opened.

Later came the jollifications of the second half, controlled by conductor Marin Alsop with just the right blend of relaxed good humour and brisk authority. Her contribution to the programming was evident in the James P Johnson, Gershwin and jazz numbers (in which Benjamin Grosvenor showed an unexpected talent for stride piano). Danielle de Niese wowed us with some sultry Delibes and led a singalong of favourites from The Sound of Music.

Then we were on the home strait, with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 1, Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs and all the rest. In between, Alsop made a heartfelt plea for the power of music education, pointing out that in Brazil, where she often works, it’s mandatory for all schoolchildren. The Prommers roared their approval.

Read more on the Telegraph website.