Last Night of the Proms in the shadow of Brexit: 'I'll feel a bit conflicted'

Performers and music lovers say this year’s concert might have a different feel, and some are uneasy about the future

For once in his life, the oboist, conductor and Proms regular Nicholas Daniel will not be tuning into the Last Night party at the Royal Albert Hall. “I won’t watch it.” he said. “I’ll feel just a bit conflicted, quite honestly.

“I will feel conflicted between my love of Elgar, my love of British music, my love of the Proms and my love of Britain as part of Europe.”

The Last Night of the Proms is known for being fun, a chance for concertgoers to let their hair down, wave union jack flags and enthusiastically sing along to the national anthem, Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia!

But this year’s party could have a different feel. For Brexit supporters it could well be the place to celebrate a historic moment. Remainers, like Daniel, may feel “queasy”. And then there are the musicians and singers on stage, many of whom are from EU countries, fearful of a future that might have a profound effect on their living if freedom of movement is curtailed.

Daniel, artistic director of next week’s Leicester international music festival, is British, teaches at a German university and is a married to a Pole.

He remembers being with his husband when it became clear that Britain had voted to leave. “It was the most depressing day that we’ve had in our life together, total disbelief,” he said.

“It’s like we’re a fortress and we’re pulling up the drawbridge. It has put a whole new slant on [the fact that] the first thing British people do when they meet is apologise. Now I have a very good reason to.”

This year’s conductor is Sakari Oramo, a Finn who remembers listening to the Last Night on the radio when he was growing up. “I found it very noisy. It was hard to hear the music behind the noise,” he said.

Oramo, taking a break from rehearsals, told the Guardian he hoped the evening would be enjoyed for what it was: “A celebration of the eight weeks of glorious music that has happened at the Proms.”

He said the programme, which had not been changed as a result of the Brexit vote, had a very international mix with music by Borodin, Rossini, Donizetti and Offenbach. The star soloist will be the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez.

But he acknowledges the Last Night also has its celebration of British music. “It is not like a normal concert,” he said. “Normally when I’m asked I say: ‘Oh, it’s just like a normal concert,’ but this one actually isn’t. This one is special with all the traditions that go with it and of course the noise, especially in the second half, and I think there might be more noise this year … who knows.”

Oramo is not expecting to do anything different, although he said he would not be sporting the union jack waistcoat he wore in 2014, his first Last Night. “I’ll wear something very stylish I’m sure, but probably nothing so obvious this year.”

If there is more enthusiastic flag-waving, that’s fine, Oramo said. “If it’s so, then let it be. I have to do it because I’m contracted. Whatever I do, and I’m sure the orchestra feel the same way, we will do to the very best of our abilities. We serve the music.”

Oramo agreed there were fears among musicians about the future, but the concert hall was not the place to air them. “People are feeling very uneasy about the situation, that’s for sure. I’ve talked to musicians about the general situation but it has not affected us in that way. Everyone is there who was supposed to be there originally.”

Musicians are right to be worried, according to the consultant and cultural commentator James Inverne, who fears the British orchestral scene will be “wrecked” unless the right decisions are made after the Brexit vote. Arguably more than any other sector, classical musicians and singers rely on being able to work easily across Europe.

“I can tell you, having British artists work in the US is an enormous pain in the neck,” said Inverne. “It is an important market, they want to go there, but the sheer amount of work that goes into setting up a visa, and the expense, often deters American orchestras from employing overseas artists.”

He worries what impression the Last Night – “a wonderful thing, great fun” – might send out and that it could “ironically underscore the worries about the disharmony that Brexit might bring”.

Inverne added: “In the last 10 years or so it has managed to avoid being seen as parochial because Britain has been so connected to the world. London has been an international hub.

“There has been a sense of it being a party for the world which happens in London and the audience has been international, helped by Proms in the Parks.

“Post-Brexit and in the immediate few years when it is sensitive, I think they will want to be careful that this is not seen as a jingoistic celebration of the rejection of Europe, or any kind of preening, and that can be difficult because of the second half.”

It is, of course, not the first time the Last Night has been held at a sensitive time. Mark Elder was famously replaced as conductor in 1990 after saying he did not wish to conduct Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia! during the time of the Gulf war.

Programmes have been changed at the last minute because of events. John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine has the distinction of being dropped twice, in 1997 after the death of Diana and 2011 after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Concertgoers were also handed copies of the American national anthem to sing that year, recalled Peter Avis, a Proms regular for more than 50 years. “It was certainly different and was not so jolly and jumpy up and down as it would have been.”

Yes, the Last Night is patriotic, he said, but it also had a history of protest with people regularly taking in banners, whether that was in support of gay rights or the miners. A “refugees welcome” banner was something of a show-stealer last year.

There is a chance that many EU flags will be waved this year, with one crowdfunded campaign successfully raising £1,175 for them. About two dozen volunteers will be outside the Royal Albert Hall hoping to persuade concertgoers to fly the flag instead of, or alongside, the union jack.

Avis, whose MA was about the Proms, said the Last Night seemed more nationalistic than in previous decades because of people in the boxes who saw it as an “event” where union flag waving was almost compulsory.

“It is the only thing a lot of people think the Proms does,” he said. “A lot of us don’t think of it being particularly patriotic and some balk at singing Rule Britannia!”

Avis, whose first Prom was the Last Night in 1961, has this year cut himself down to 20 concerts and will not be there on Saturday, although not because of Brexit. “We have got rather fed up with it. It’s so long and there is all this business of waving at everybody on the screens.”

BBC Proms lovers, like Daniel, stress that they have got nothing against the Last Night and there are no obvious calls for any changes because of Brexit. “The Last Night is a celebration of the Proms and a celebration of music-making and an opportunity to have a good singsong,” he said. “Let’s not knock that. And it is also, in this day and age, just great to see music on the telly, frankly.”

Many people will hope the whole evening is free of politics, and they can just enjoy the music and the daftness.

The former Proms director Sir Nicholas Kenyon, writing this week in the Guardian, acknowledged there might be a sense of foreboding this year but said the music being played had its roots outside Britain. “The inspiration our native music has derived from continental Europe and beyond has been deep and lasting,” he said.

How heavily Brexit looms on Saturday night remains to be seen. Certainly Oramo, who as conductor has to deliver a speech, is not likely to touch on the subject.

“I’m thinking about the speech day and night but I haven’t finalised it yet,” he said, correctly declining to reveal anything he might say.

“It is a challenge to put something together which contributes to the spirit of the evening but also has some meaning to it,” he said. “But I’m a musician, speaking to a musical audience.”

Last Night of the Proms will be live on BBC2 and BBC1 from 7.15pm.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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