15 September 2008

Guardian angels sung this strain


BBC Proms in the Park
Hyde Park
13 September 2008


Each year since 1895 classical music buffs have enjoyed a series of summer concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in a programme of performances that have grown into a national institution. While the Proms are a broad survey of classical music both old and new, the famous Last Night of the Proms is a well-deserved knees-up that has taken on epic proportions. Tickets for the main event inside the Albert Hall cannot be had for love nor money, but the organisers sensibly broadened the Last Night audience in response to public demand, and now there are four outdoor concerts on the Last Night - this year in Hyde Park, Swansea, Glasgow and Belfast, one in each of the home nations. And on Saturday I was lucky enough to attend the Proms in the Park performance in Hyde Park with Felix and her gang.

In previous years I've enjoyed watching the Last Night on television not simply because of the quality of the music being performed, although some of the best artists and orchestras are involved. It has become something of a British national institution, an evening of revelry that marks the symbolic end of the summer idyll, and probably the one time each year that millions of people have anything to do with classical music. Me included, I should add: I generally like the stuff when I hear it, but most days I prefer the tried and true guitars and verse-chorus-verse. The organisers know this, and when they plan their programmes there's definitely a strong impetus towards popular and easily accessible material.

The venue in Hyde Park was the same spot on which I'd attended the Wireless Festival with Al back in July - a broad expanse of perfectly flat grass in the eastern reaches of the park near Marble Arch. Five hours of entertainment commenced with Bellowhead, a 12-piece big band combo that took my fancy with their jigs, reels and exuberant volume. They were followed by a short set by four rather bland show-tune blokes who call themselves Teatro, who aim their microphones squarely at the Grans market. Oh dear, they're doing Music Of The Night and something from The Lion King. Next, please.

Hooray, it's professional Abba impersonators Björn Again! I'm not afraid to confess a long-held admiration for the Swedish pop gods, although don't play Dancing Queen at me as radio programmers have spent decades thrashing it to death at every opportunity. Björn Again put on a good show, complete with cod-Scandinavian accents and frankly vertiginous white boots on 'Frida' and 'Agnetha'. Of course, how are we to know that this is the real Björn Again; after all, there are five acts touring the world under the franchise name. Perhaps the aplomb with which they handle a faulty backing tape, requiring a nerve-wracking a capella performance of Voulez-Vous, was proof enough that these copyists are talented performers in their own right. And 50 percent of them wear really short outfits, which never did Bucks Fizz any harm either.



Then it was time to move on to the classical performances. The avuncular compere, Sir Terry Wogan, introduced the BBC Concert Orchestra, and brought out comedian Sue Perkins (formerly of Mel & Sue's Late Lunch fame in the late 90s), the guest conductor and winner of BBC2's Maestro competition. She had bested the two runners-up in the competition: the unlikely duo of drum 'n bass stalwart Goldie and the actress and former Macca girlfriend Jane Asher. Perkins is a good sort, and it was great to see her performing so well in front of a huge live audience - this portion of the show was being broadcast live on TV and radio across the UK. She conducted the talented soprano Lesley Garrett, who trilled winsomely to good effect. After a zesty violin performance by the pony-tailed (and not related to the previous performer) David Garrett, a professional conductor was brought in and none other than the legendary tenor Jose Carreras strode forth to give a powerful yet graceful performance of a series of Neapolitan pieces. Snappy dresser, senor.





To keep the punters' attention the programme shifted popwards again with a set from Sharleen Spiteri, the former front-woman of Scottish rock band Texas, who has now gone solo with a collection of 60s R&B-inflected Winehousian pop songs. She belted through a series of her old material and a few new songs too, which are catchy enough, but erred in opting to perform The Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go in a hokey twanged-up version that veered unhappily close to line-dancing music. Other than that, Spiteri gave a decent performance, and with her hair tied back doesn't she look just like Kate Bush? No? Anyone...?

Then it was time to get all 21st-century and send the satellites into overdrive with a massive linkup to perform an avant-garde (i.e. tuneless) piece by a young composer. While it proved to be a bit cacophonous, I liked the idea of a single piece of music being played by five sets of musicians in five different locations. I think it worked as planned, although I'm not sure if the afore-mentioned lack of a decent tune was intentional or merely the result of a broadcast lag.

After that it was straight back into the Old Stuff, which is what most of the attendees are there for. In Hyde Park plenty of the concert-goers were already decked out in a garish array of Union Flags, potentially dodgy St George crosses, ill-advised Union Flag top-hats, and frankly abysmal glowing neon bunny ears, devil's horns or Timmy Mallett specs. Yes folks, it's your big chance to be patriotic AND zany in one fell swoop! Spare me...

In the Albert Hall the booming voice of Welsh bass baritone Bryn Terfel saws through a folk song medley, ending in Molly Malone ('Alive, alive-o...'). Then the anticipation levels rocket as Elgar's Pomp And Circumstance flutters towards the grand finale, when the big guns come out...

Boom! 'Land of Hope and Glory'

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.


Boom! 'Rule, Britannia!' This is the cue for massive flag-waving and plenty of inebriated shouting along to the chorus by the massed crowd in Hyde Park. Despite the words being twenty feet high on the massive screen, no-one sings the verses; they only love the chorus. And yet I note they don't even sing the proper words in the chorus either:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
Britons never will be slaves!


becomes:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves
Britons never-never-never shall be slaves!




I gave up trying to analyse this, because next it was...

Boom! 'Jerusalem' How many famous literary allusions can you count? Dark satanic mills? Check! Chariots of fire? Check! England's green and pleasant land? Check! Of course, the notion that Jesus may have visited Glastonbury with his wandering uncle Joseph runs strictly counter to the avowedly cursed climate of that same Somerset town, given that even to this day every summer thousands of people journey from across the world to Glastonbury in order to be swamped in a sea of putrid mud.

Finally, it's time to close the flag-waving boisterous pageant with a solemn rendition of the plodding God Save The Queen, which some rare elements of the crowd attempt to wave flags in time to, but more use the opportunity to make a dash for the exits to beat the crowds. But wait, fireworks! Not in the Albert Hall, mind - that would be quite a fire hazard. We gazed upwards as the stage in Hyde Park was haloed with a fusillade of rockets bursting above us, signalling an explosive end to a highly enjoyable night's entertainment.




BBC: Why are there so few female conductors?
Guardian: The only Asian in the audience
Youtube: Late Lunch trailer (1:02)
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