It would be difficult to judge the Last Night of the Proms on the same terms as any other classical concert simply because it is not like any other. And why should it be? Following 75 previous concerts, the Last Night has the unique task of rounding off the largest classical music festival in the world. 

Yet the evening’s programme did not betray the BBC Symphony Orchestra as taking things easier than usual. Though only five minutes long, the world première of Gavin Higgins’ Velocity was one challenge. This paled in comparison to the first performance at the Proms of Richard Strauss’ massive cantata Taillefer. These demanding works proved that there is more to the Last Night than the display of patriotism it is known for.

Roderick Williams and Sakari Oramo © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Roderick Williams and Sakari Oramo
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The brevity of Velocity meant it was over too quickly to judge. The Proms programmers often include a new work at the Last Night – a possible turn-off for an audience looking for revelry to close the season. However, Higgins was sympathetic to the Last Night’s mood, and Velocity made for an exciting opener to this evening of celebration. 

The audience were further blessed by a conductor who enthusiastically threw himself into the occasion. Dressed in his Union Jack waistcoat, this was Sakari Oramo’s first time conducting the Last Night. He fed off the buzzing atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall, diving straight into the energy of Velocity’s opening fanfare. Yet Oramo did not let the excitement overwhelm him. In Walton’s Façade – Popular Song he controlled the strings of the BBCSO expertly. Their playing was exact, bringing out the work’s lightness. 

Though the audience were looking for fun rather than a serious classical concert, violinist Janine Jansen succeeded in engaging in her performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poème. Opening with a quietly poignant melody, she had them holding onto every single note. In both Poème and Ravel’s Tzigane Jansen displayed both her technical mastery and stunning expressivity, often switching flawlessly between them.

Janine Jansen and Sakari Oramo © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Janine Jansen and Sakari Oramo
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Such considered performances had to be taken seriously, somewhat out of keeping of the Last Night’s atmosphere. However, this was all undone by Jansen’s encore. It began as normal. But as Jansen lifted her bow to play, another violinist was heard offstage. After some tentative and amusing interaction, it soon emerged that this hidden violinist was none other than the conductor himself! Watching Oramo and Jensen interact in Alekset Igudesman’s humorous arrangement of La Cucaracha was a pleasure, and the audience wasappreciative. 

The inclusion of Malcolm Arnold’s Overture ‘Peterloo’ proved that the Last Night was not only going to be a display of British patriotism. The work commemorates the 1812 Peterloo massacre, when an armed cavalry attacked a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers – hardly Britain’s proudest moment in history. It is a poignant work, opening and closing with a contemplative chorale tune.

Yet it was spoilt by the addition of new lyrics supplied by Sir Tim Rice. Though the words “I pray my country finds another kind of glory, /And sees that earthly paradise was not the whole story” alludes to how Britain’s past is anything but faultless, the words detracted from what the work is meant to commemorate. Though Rice’s lyrics urged its listeners not to forget such shameful events as the Peterloo Massacre, this is exactly what this performance encouraged in turning the focus away from Peterloo and towards this more general plea. 

The first half’s programme was a potpourri but its pieces would not have been out of place in any other Proms concert. It was only in the second half when the fun really began. Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance was brilliantly boisterous, especially with a fearless John Chimes on timpani. Though I cannot vouch for the musical integrity of the sing along Mary Poppins medley, I can say it was jolly good fun. 

Roderick Williams’ voice in Joshua fit de Battle of Jericho and Ol’ Man River from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat was luxuriously rich. It was a shame that the Albert Hall’s drowned his sound. Fortunately, by this point the audience were too busy waving flags and throwing confetti to care.

Sakari Oramo © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sakari Oramo
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It is this which makes reviewing the Last Night of the Proms difficult. It was impossible to avoid getting swept up in the excitement and sheer joy of the occasion. This was most difficult when the concert reached its climax. Rule, Britannia!, Land of Hope and Glory, and Jerusalem may be reproached for their jingoism. But the Last Night was never really about that. Amongst the masses of Union Jack flags in the audience were flags from Spain, Sweden and Australia to name a few. The Last Night of the Proms cannot be seen as a symbol of British patriotism. Rather, with audiences from across the globe singing just as loudly as any Brit, it was a triumphant celebration of classical music and joy it can bring to absolutely anyone.