The Last Night of the Proms provided a welcome tying-up of the various strands that have permeated this year’s season: British light music, the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, a host of premières and new BBC commissions, and the significant anniversaries of a number of composers (including the big-hitters of the season, Wagner and Britten).

Joyce DiDonato and Marin Alsop with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Joyce DiDonato and Marin Alsop with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Notable and noticeable, too, were the contributions of two American women to this most British of institutions: the publicity in the newspapers that mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and conductor Marin Alsop enjoyed ensured that the audience was primed to welcome them with open arms. Craftily getting round the Proms’ no-politics-on-the-stage rule, DiDonato made a statement to say that her performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow was dedicated to those in the LGBT community whose voices had been silenced, describing the song as “particularly pertinent given what’s going on in Russia”, and yet more so given that Alsop is openly gay. There is always one rainbow flag at the Last Night, but this year their number and size almost rivalled the Union Jacks festooning the Royal Albert Hall.

Meanwhile, nobody could escape Alsop’s being the first female conductor ever to preside over the Last Night. Her second-half podium decor (an L plate, several “it’s a girl!” pink balloons, and a small sign saying “Multitasking area: no men allowed”) humorously reinforced her message, in the wake of some ill-judged comments from Vasily Petrenko, that it was a pity that “firsts for women” were still occurring in 2013, and that her gender really shouldn’t matter.

And it didn’t. Alsop was warmly received, and with just cause; she demanded of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and they met her efficient, informed demeanour with enthusiasm to produce an excellent sound throughout the night – especially, I thought, in Anna Clyne’s commission Masquerade, with its sumptuous string scoring and retro feel. She held firm with the soloists too – no mean feat when you have the Aston Villa-beshirted Nigel Kennedy heading off on any number of improvisatory passages in his arrangement of Vittorio Monti’s Csardas. His maverick style was far better suited to the Hungarian gypsy spirit than to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which he played earlier in the Proms this year, but he still wove a cheeky bit of Spring into the piece.

The affinity between Alsop and her compatriot DiDonato was plain to see and hear. Whilst DiDonato took centre stage both literally and figuratively, taking dramatic command of Massenet’s Je suis ivre! in a fabulous, deep mauve Vivienne Westwood dress accessorised with DeBeers jewellery (sigh), and continuing with Handel’s well-loved Ombra mai fu, Alsop worked quietly in the background to produce a sound as fabulous as DiDonato’s brooding mezzo. DiDonato returned later on in an equally sparkly champagne number for the aforementioned Somewhere Over the Rainbow, “something of a signature tune” but nevertheless sung with delicate sincerity and received with adoring applause.

Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms was an inspired choice for the Last Night programme (even if the composer had specified that the solo should be sung by either a countertenor or boy treble; “never by a woman”), as the conductor had herself been taught by the great man. Although in Hebrew, Walter Hussey, then Dean of Chichester, who had a hand in commissioning the Psalms, allegedly insisted on more than a hint of West Side Story. Iestyn Davies’ magnificent, haunting solo lines were complemented by the chorus’ sublime singing, particularly in the third movement.

In the second half of the concert, the overture to Candide, followed swiftly by Make our Garden Grow, gave Bernstein’s lighter side an outing. Although the sea shanties were noticeably absent this year, the naval theme remained with Granville Bantock’s Sea Reivers and the HMS Trinidad March by George Lloyd. For Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia, DiDonato added to the fun by putting on an enormous dress-cloak reminiscent of the outfit seen in countless portraits of Britannia herself. Sensing the party atmosphere, she tastefully went to town with ornamentation; the crowd lapped it up, responding with increasingly vigorous choruses.

By the time it came to the flag-waving, rumbustious-singing final trio of pieces, the audience’s vocal chords were well and truly warmed up. Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 elicited a premature mumbling of “Land of hope and glory” as the tune played for the first time, but once the chorus joined in, nobody held back. The same went for the lustily-sung Jerusalem. A cunning, final nod to the Britten centenary came in the form of his arrangement of the National Anthem; the gorgeous harmonies beneath the almost impossibly quiet strains of the chorus, numbering goodness knows how many, silenced the audience. It goes without saying, though, that the second rendition was as loud as anyone might imagine.

This was a finely judged programme that felt almost like the conclusion of an essay (though certainly less dull than that) in the way that it gave closure to the Proms themes of this year. The programme took us through Europe, across the Atlantic and back again, yet the Last Night remained patriotically British without being overly saccharine. It will doubtlessly be remembered, for all sorts of reasons, for a good time to come.

****1