On paper this did not look like the most inspiring Last Night of the Proms. Even by the measure of recent years, the first half seemed just too bitty, with even the longest piece lasting a mere thirteen minutes. Manuel de Falla’s Suite No. 2 from his The Three Cornered Hat is indeed a lovely piece, and was beautifully played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its chief conductor Sakari Oramo, but still the first half seemed to lack something along the lines of Berlioz’ Lélio – Fantasy on Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, which brought such gravitas to the celebrations here twelve months ago.
In the event, however, each piece as it came around offered something so worthwhile that the overall effect was one of delight after delight. As is the tradition, the evening began with a new BBC commission, which in this instance was Woke by Daniel Kidane. Uplifting and energising, it was also designed to leave one thinking about social and racial injustice in the world. This it certainly did, although the overriding sense one was left with was simply that of an immensely skilful composition.
Following The Three Cornered Hat the BBC Singers sang an a capella version of Laura Mvula’s Sing to the Moon. With a beautiful arrangement, sensitive singing and a notably hushed audience, it proved as moving as the same choir’s performance of Stanford’s The Blue Bird last year. Elizabeth Maconchy’s Proud Thames then proved an immensely evocative work, while Elgar’s wonderful Sospiri, Op. 70 constituted the Last Night’s ‘Henry Wood novelty’ (works that he introduced to the UK for the first time) in a season that has been full of them to mark the 150th anniversary of the Proms’ founder conductor’s birth.
So far, so good, but the evening was then raised to another level with the introduction of the evening’s soloist, mezzo-soprano and Cardiff Singer of the World 2013 Jamie Barton. In performing ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ from Carmen, ‘Mon couer s’ouvre a ta voix’ from Samson et Dalila and ‘O don fatale’ from Don Carlos, she revealed different sides to her voice, and yet everything was underscored by her immaculate technique and total engagement with what she was singing. Her sound was immensely well shaped, and her big notes, including those that sat lower in the register, were of a phenomenal standard as they felt overwhelmingly powerful, and yet never raucous or hyperbolic. With the aria being phrased to perfection, she was suitably seductive in the ‘Habanera’, showed great sensitivity in ‘Mon couer s’ouvre a ta voix’, while after ‘O don fatale’ she raised her head to the skies as she took in the rapturous applause. It was nice after these three arias, however, to conclude the first half of the evening with the ‘Triumphal March’ from Aida, in which the playing of the six additional trumpets was so extraordinary that one could hear things that do not always come across so clearly in performances.
These days a Last Night soloist sings several arias in the first half, takes on some lighter fare towards the start of the second and then contributes to the traditional Last Night celebrations by singing ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Given the disparate demands that this places on any singer, many do not prove uniformly strong across all three of these distinct areas. Barton, however, certainly did, while also embracing the occasion in every sense. She waved a rainbow flag during the final chorus of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and also joyously pointed out one that had been gently swaying in the arena during her performance of Harold Arlen’s ‘Over the Rainbow’.
Another highlight of the second half was a performance of Percy Grainger’s ‘wordless’ Marching Song of Democracy in which the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus excelled as they chanted ‘Dum pum pum pum’ and ‘Ta ra dira dara’ to the point that by the end of the piece their sound positively glowed. Elsewhere, the audience seemed in good spirits, although this was not always a good thing. Participation is all part of the celebration, but that does not mean that clapping is always appropriate and in the performance of the ‘Can-Can’ section of the Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld it actually obscured what seemed to be some really exciting playing. Similarly, during the ‘Hornpipe’ the level of clapping seemed to be far greater than usual at the start, which was a shame as the BBC Symphony Orchestra seemed to be applying some really radical ‘embellishments’ to the piece, and it would have been nice to have been able to hear them better.
The hall did sport many EU flags, with the number of these (and EU berets) in the arena far outweighing the number of union jacks. The protest at this music event, however, was focused on the threat that Brexit poses to musicians by potentially shutting off the right to Freedom of Movement. Given the highly charged political situation in the UK at the moment, there may have been some fears in advance that tensions would spill over into the hall on the night. However, while there were reports of several incidents, such as a small group chanting ‘Brexit now’ during the unaccompanied first verse of The National Anthem, the majority of concert-goers would probably not even have been aware that these had occurred. As a result, The Last Night of the Proms 2019 did remain focused on the music, stood as a celebration of humanity in all its diversity, and felt like a fitting way to round off another tremendous summer of music making at the Royal Albert Hall.