The Last Night of the Proms is always a bizarre event. The best-known concert in the world, it mixes melancholia with craziness as a finale to the summer season at the Albert Hall; and for determined Promenaders who have been there every night for eight weeks, there’s an understandable emotion when they link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne. It marks a passing in the year of some significance.
More broadly, though, it celebrates a passing culture steeped in fantasies of what it is or isn’t to be British. Heavy with nostalgic rituals whose meaning has in part been lost to irony, its messages are mixed and hard to read. But one clear message this year was that European flags outnumbered Union Jacks by three to one: a signal someone in the chaos of our current government might ponder.
Musically, alas, this Last Night wasn’t too distinguished. As a piece of programme-planning it was poor, with nothing of much interest in the bits of Berlioz, Hindemith and Stanford thrown together in the first half and nothing of real impact in the second, apart from the sassy young saxophonist Jess Gillam playing Milhaud’s Scaramouche in an abandoned way.
But one thing that did stand out was a BBC commission from composer Roxanna Panufnik, whose Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light set texts by Kahlil Gibran and Isaac Rosenberg. Written for orchestra and chorus with an earthily warm sense of mystery as discords churned above the heavy tread of a slow, steady beat, it felt like a secular counterpart to the ecstatic liturgical works for which Panufnik is well known to Catholic audiences. Works such as her Westminster Mass composed for Basil Hume some 20 years ago.
There seems to be some kind of spiritual radiance in her output almost by default. And through this underwhelming Last Night of the Proms it shone, nicely delivered by the BBCSO and Chorus under Andrew Davis.
Also shining in the Proms’ last week was a tumultuous account of Britten’s War Requiem in which the venerable Huddersfield Choral Society sang with a clarity and freshness I didn’t expect, and the junior choir of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra projected with spine-tingling impact from up in the gallery. The vastness of the Albert Hall is suited to a score like this, but it can swallow sound as well as give it space. Here Peter Oundjian, conducting, handled the acoustic well. It was a good start to the many more War Requiems scheduled to run throughout Britain as commemorations for the end of World War I get under way. If you don’t know this music yet, you will by Christmas.
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