After 90+ brilliantly eccentric events in venues from gritty car parks to the timeless Royal Albert Hall, we came to the end of the 2016 Proms season. The defiant Marseillaise on opening night seems an age ago, and via a long list of intriguing season themes, concerts and operas we found ourselves at the silliest and least representative of them all. Fears of an uncomfortable Union Jack/ EU flag divide proved unfounded (numbers were almost even to my eyes) and, amid the high jinks, traditions and thoroughly amateur audience participation, emerged another edition of that king of all end-of-term parties, the Last Night of the Proms.
In the interests of full disclosure, this was a first Last Night in SW7 for me, having previously followed events solely on television. Being present for the actual event reveals a number of things, not least in highlighting the tremendous party atmosphere. The music, for the most part, is somehow paid more attention, revealing some wonderful discoveries such as Jonathan Dove's Our revels now are ended amid the pot pourri of the evening's programme. Other moments, such as the traditional Hornpipe, were almost inaudible beneath the tumult of stamping and audience horns, while the big choruses of Rule, Britannia and Land of hope and glory were bellowed out with gusto, if not with any particular majority in key signatures among the Prommers.
Of the evening's four contemporary works, Dove's poignant, multilingual setting Prospero's famous soliloquy from The Tempest was by far the most meaningful. At the other end of the first half, the world première of Tom Harrold's Raze showed off the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble as a slick and talented band, safely navigating the rhythmic technicalities of the work with ease as percussive outbursts ricocheted around the stage, while the strings played with a glossy edge of which John Wilson would be proud. Less substantive was Michael Torke's Javelin, written for the 1994 Atlanta Olympics. Though a pleasant enough prelude to the second half of the concert, it added little to the programme.
The evening's main centrepieces lay in Italian opera and Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who by the end of the night, resplendent in Inca garb, had the audience in the palm of his hand. He quickly proved himself an accomplished showman as Don Ramiro in the ornate decorations of La Cenerentola, while also colouring the softer corners with great sensitivity. There was a lot to like in the latter two arias from Donizetti too, which Flórez gave with a mix of hearty bravura (those top Cs!) and good humour. He lovingly delivered his words to a small Paddington Bear, passed up to him from the Prommers, while somehow remaining on the better side of good taste.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the buoyant direction of Sakari Oramo, managed the abrupt switches between contemporary, classical, romantic and Latin genres with admirable style. A particular highlight was leader Stephen Bryant's exquisitely beautiful playing in dialogue with the orchestra and ensemble of young singers in Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music. The latter group were without exception very impressive, both as soloists and as a unit. The greater chorus itself, consisting of the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers, tore into the Polovtsian Dances and the end of show fireworks with aplomb. Oramo spoke movingly on the role of music in society in the traditional conductor's speech, even managing to hold the hall quiet for a few moments. This Last Night, despite being as riotously incongruous as ever with the rest of the season, at least reminded us of that.
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