tue 21/11/2017

Last Night of the Proms review: Stemme, BBCSO, Oramo - international array, abundant blue and gold | reviews, news & interviews

Last Night of the Proms review: Stemme, BBCSO, Oramo - international array, abundant blue and gold

Last Night of the Proms review: Stemme, BBCSO, Oramo - international array, abundant blue and gold

Final celebrations for a fine season efficient, varied, and fun as ever

Sakari Oramo conducting the crowd – full mastery of the Last Night formatAbove image by Mark Allan/BBC, the rest by Chris Christodoulou

The Last Night of the Proms is always a beautifully choreographed event, and this year’s was no exception. The format changes little, but each year a new selection of works is chosen to fill the slots. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, always the backbone of the season, somehow manages to sound fresh for their final outing. And the audience was dependable as ever, listening attentively through the first half, but then taking control of the second, and by the end making events onstage more or less irrelevant.

By recent tradition, the Last Night opens with a premiere. The commission presumably calls for a five-minute work, in a light, scherzo character, but with plenty of action for all the sections of the orchestra, and each year the chosen composer delivers exactly that. Lotta Wennäksoki, a young Finnish composer, ticked all those boxes with her Flounce, but also managed to project a personality through all the gimmicks: plenty of percussion, slapstick trombone glissandos, but all imaginatively woven together into a concise and well-crafted score.

The first choral number was Kodály’s Budavári Te Deum. It’s a big piece, over 20 minutes long and employing choir, orchestra and four soloists. Kodály makes excellent use of his amassed forces, with intricate polyphony in the choral writing, and sumptuous orchestral accompaniment. The BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus rose to the many challenges, as did the soloists, with soprano Lucy Crowe (pictured below with tenor Ben Johnson) standing out for the rarefied beauty of her tone, well projected across often heavy accompaniment.Lucy Crowe and Ben Johnson in Last Night KodalyThe 50th anniversary of the death of Malcolm Sargent was commemorated with his tone poem An Impression on a Windy Day. Like many conductors who dabble in composing, Sargent’s greatest strength here is his masterly use of orchestral colour. Otherwise, this is a fairly standard mid-20th century sub-Delius effort, likeable but unassuming.

I could have managed without the choral-and-orchestral version of Sibelius’s Finlandia. This was its first performance at the Proms, suggesting that its nationalistic overtones are too much, even for this event. Sakari Oramo took the work at a brisk pace, with very little shaping of phrases, and some messy brass chords at the opening, with poor ensemble later on, suggested under-rehearsal. Fortunately, the performance was salvaged by the massed chorus, given a magisterial account of the concluding hymn.

The evening’s guest star was Wagnerian soprano Nina Stemme (pictured below in second half mode), on home turf in the first half with the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The opera’s Prelude was also included and, as in the Sibelius, Oramo seemed clinical, at least at the start, although he gradually relaxed into the sumptuous string sonorities. Stemme’s voice has lost some of its lustre in recent years, but she still has the projection and security of the tone required for this demanding music.Nina Stemme at the Last Night of the PromsJohn Adams opened the second half with Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance, a teaser for his new opera Girls of the Golden West, scheduled for San Francisco in November. The tutti music is typical John Adams – Romantic textures constructed though Minimalist techniques – but the central section is a more engaging E flat clarinet solo, representing the spider dance though increasing frenzied roulades. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the ever-versatile Oramo, took everything here in their stride.

Stemme then returned for some cabaret numbers, making a classy act out of Weill and Gershwin, although there was never any doubt that this was an opera singer slumming it. How strange to hear a Wagnerian singer of this calibre amplified and singing English with an American accent – we heard Weill in English and German, the latter far more convincing.

Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs tends to get chopped and changed to fit the programme, and this year large sections were removed to make way for choral arrangements of songs from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The BBC has been making great efforts in recent years to integrate the satellite events from around the country into the Albert Hall concert, including, in previous years, television broadcasts into the hall. That never really worked, and this evening’s compromise was even stranger, with pictures from the other events shown on screens while the choirs present sang the arrangements in loose synch to the images. The arrangements themselves also needed a strong stomach, especially the saccharine suspension-laden version of Danny Boy. I’d much rather have heard Home, Sweet Home, and all the other sections of the Fantasia that we missed. No doubt they’ll all be back next year.Sakari Oramo making the Last Night speechAnd for the concluding formalities: Oramo’s speech (pictured above) was brief and pithy, a celebration of women conductors among his themes; Stemme appeared as Brünnhilde for Rule, Britannia!; and the singalongs were directed with welcome efficiency and pace by Oramo, who has clearly now clearly mastered this event. Plenty of flag-waving going on throughout, and, I’m pleased to report, a strong showing for the European flag, especially in the Arena, which in the second half transformed into a sea of blue and gold.

@saquabote

Comments

Enjoyed Last Night on TV as have done since 1950s. Nina Stemme fantastic except in Rule Britannia, where the second verse went haywire. Not to be taken for granted: Constance Shacklock, Monica Sinclair ( under Sargent ) and a few others knew how to do it- neither Stemme nor the conductor, sadly, had the necessary engagement.

Small correction; for the John Adams work, I think that you meant to type "Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance".

Corrected, with thanks.

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