This may have represented a somewhat tentative step in the direction of widening the scope of the Proms but, if you’re going to include other genres in the festival, an evening with Michael Ball is as good a place to start as any.
There’s an argument to say that, if the BBC Proms is a celebration of music, it should cater for as wide a range of musical tastes as possible. Change is slow, though, and the announcement of this concert was greeted with howls of disapproval from some quarters.
Certainly integrity has to be maintained let’s never see Das Lied von der Erde amplified or Schoenberg orchestrated by Andrew Lloyd Webber but there are different ways of ensuring this and there’s no harm in embracing the whole musical experience. This was hardly a precedent, of course; there have been musicals at the Proms before and various other ventures beyond the hallowed boundaries of classical music, so it was difficult to see in advance why this parting shot from Mr Kenyon should have provoked such a reaction.
To the concert itself, and there was much here that has rarely if ever been seen at the Proms before a packed auditorium and near empty arena (did this invalidate it being a Prom?); a predominance of women; heavily-distorting amplification; constant standing ovations; houselights up after every number; audience clapping and singing along. That’s what happens at Michael Ball concerts so it comes with the territory. We’re going to have to learn a new set of protocols if this sort of thing is going to happen regularly.
Ball belted out a number of his standards from “Don’t Rain on My Parade” to “Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord” from Godspelll, “Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar and “Empty Chairs” from Les Miserables. He made a sly dig at the Proms purists with a camp upbeat Bunthorne, the elitist, self-satisfied aesthete from Patience, which he played on Broadway a couple of years ago, a jab that delighted the faithful (so, not much bringing together of the different audiences there). He made a dangerous invitation to the audience to compare and contrast between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim and, to reinforce the point, helpfully made them sound pretty much the same. The gigantic distance that should have been felt with the following “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story was bridged too.
If this was another Michael Ball concert, rather than another Prom, was it really necessary for the star to make a concession to “high art” by feeling he had to perform an operatic hit, though? This is maybe where integrity of both performer and festival was at stake. In a recent interview, Mr Ball explained how opera is boring and tuneless but confounded his thesis here by duetting from The Pearl Fishers with Alfie Boe. If you hadn’t heard of opera before, this was clearly a highlight and had this been Britain’s Got Talent, it’s obvious who would have won (certainly not Bizet).
He may be a Classic FM darling but Alfie Boe is also a bona fide opera singer and it was a shame that he couldn’t have dispensed with the miking and allowed us to hear one human voice during the evening unimprisoned by cheap technology. As it was, the rendition of “Torna a Surriento” by this former colleague of Mr Ball’s (they were in the appalling Kismet together) went down a storm.
This was a night for leaving the critical faculties at home and being swept along on a wave of emotion, but what’s wrong with giving an audience what they want (and boy did they want it) if it doesn’t frighten the horses? Whether or not this Prom succeeded in bringing people together, who were not already together, I’m not sure.
Michael Ball has an almost unique capability of turning any internet forum discussion (yes, even the normally demure official Proms one) into a nasty childish slanging match. Someone who can raise such intense emotions can’t be all bad and, love him or hate him, you can’t deny he’s an entertainer who knows how to thrill his audience, even if here they were imported almost wholesale.