And so it ends. Eight weeks have sped past, there’s an autumnal chill in the air (though to be fair, it was there for much of August… and July) and another Proms season draws to a close. Prommers played ‘sardines’ to crush into the Arena, flags were unfurled and balloons were unleashed as a party atmosphere filled the hall. A party with community singing – every wallflower’s nightmare. I am that wallflower. I hated it.

Marin Alsop hosts the Last Night of the Proms © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Marin Alsop hosts the Last Night of the Proms
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Marin Alsop presided over a musical programme with little coherence. Thus we had the season’s only Richard Strauss (a scrappy Till Eulenspiegel), Lehár and Delibes. We also had Puccini, given the presence of Jonas Kaufmann, and Arvo Pärt (whose 80th birthday it was the day before). The longest piece of the twenty of so works performed was Shostakovich’s quirky Piano Concerto no. 2 (around 20 minutes), but then nobody eats anything substantial at a party, picking instead at canapés and crisps. This was a menu of musical vol au vents. 

There were pleasant discoveries. I’d not heard Arvo Pärt’s Credo before, a work that precedes his more familiar ‘tintinnabuli’ minimalist style. Pärt juxtaposes different styles of music, opening in grand oratorio mode before solo piano interrupts with a pastiche on Bach’s C major Prelude from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier. As the music grows more violent and dissonant, the piano returns, like Orpheus taming the wild beasts, to bring peaceful resolution. The BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers brought great vocal power and I found it a moving work. More appropriate party fare came from James P. Johnson’s Victory Stride, a toe-tapping, big band swing number to kickstart Part 2, which allowed several members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to shine in solos, for which they stood.

Marin Alsop was an affable host, conducting her second Last Night and co-ordinating the shenanigans in the various Proms-in-the-Park events across the country with good humour. Her speech, however, touched on vital issues of inequality and included the important role the BBC plays in widening access to music for all.

Benjamin Grosvenor © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Benjamin Grosvenor
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Every party needs a guest of honour. The Last Night gave us two. Benjamin Grosvenor appears to have a serious, rather shy persona, yet his Shostakovich was full of wit and joy. It also brought out the best in the BBCSO, with bright woodwinds appropriately shrill in their jocular commentaries, strings relishing the balalaika pizzicatos in the finale. Grosvenor brought tender lyricism to the popular middle movement. It was a shame his two party pieces were placed after the interval instead of performed as encores; tucked away at the side of the platform, they seemed like afterthoughts.

The guest of honour most people awaited with the greatest anticipation was star tenor Jonas Kaufmann. His Puccini and Lehár did not disappoint, his burnt chocolate tenor a little dark for Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia”, perhaps, but satisfyingly rich in “Donna non vidi mai” and the ubiquitous “Nessun dorma”. The wild audience reception he was afforded seemed to genuinely astonish him, but perhaps not as much as the pair of black knickers that winged their way onto the platform! Kaufmann was all Dolce and Gabbana elegance in long velevet jacket and slipper shoes for his second half appearance, which included a swooning “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” in which he switched to English for the second verse. He made a noble effort at Rule Britannia, considering his baritonal tenor doesn’t zip around all that easily. A Bavarian flag added a nice touch.

Jonas Kaufmann and Marin Alsop © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Jonas Kaufmann and Marin Alsop
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

A third guest also appeared, Danielle de Niese gatecrashing the second half to help lead the community singing. Not one of My Favourite Things, alas.

So, the curtain falls on a season which contained a whopping 76 Proms held in the Royal Albert Hall (plus matinees and lunchtime gigs at Cadogan Hall). It was a season which was more interesting and rewarding than an initial scan of the Proms Prospectus had suggested to me, with few disappointments in the concerts I attended. Late night solo Bach proved a great success. The mixed success of the late night cross-breeds with other BBC radio stations continues to prompt questions about the non-classical element in the season. The BBC orchestras valiantly shouldered the weight of the season, propped up in recent weeks by some starry international visitors. And anniversary boys Sibelius and Nielsen celebrated their 150th birthdays in some style, even if they had scuttled off back to Scandinavia before the Last Night revelries.