Last Night of the Proms review – carnival silliness but music and messages lack real bite

Royal Albert Hall, London
In a hall awash with EU regalia, inflatables and oversize hats, the celebration that ends the Proms season was fun, but both the music and the banter felt oddly removed from reality

The Royal Albert Hall is a huge venue, built to accommodate a Victorian penchant for “monster concerts” featuring hundreds of musicians. For the Last Night of the Proms, the place is packed. In the arena, prommers jostle politely for space amid the flags, oversize hats and comedy inflatables. One man is accompanied by a banana the size of a small adult. Elsewhere a blow-up flamingo and a kangaroo waving its own flag emerge occasionally from the roiling sea of bodies. There isn’t much space for elephants in this room, but this year there were two.

The first, inevitably, was Brexit. Outside, a man wearing a “Thank EU for the music!” T-shirt and holding bunches of EU flags advertised his wares: “Free flags for free movement!” He was part of a wholesale giveaway crowdfunded annually since 2016, with more flags produced every year – 20,000 for 2018, says Paolo, a fourth-generation Italian Londoner who is campaigning for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. Union jacks, meanwhile, were going for up to £3 each.

Inside the hall was a different matter. Yes, there were flags galore, and yes, seeing the arena was awash with EU regalia. “I think something has changed recently,” German visitor Marie-Louise said brightly, as we surveyed the flags. “There’s no longer a majority that want Brexit.”

Whether she’s right or not, this is an evening when an engrained taste for the carnivalesque – with periodic eruptions of silly noises from an audience determined to behave a little bit badly – outweighs any thought about the politics of the event. By the time the encore of the Henry Wood’s sea shanty arrangement rolled around, with its informally choreographed extravaganza of stamping, knee-bobbing, and all-together-now flag swinging, I started to wonder whether the symbols printed on the flags actually mattered. This whole ritual seemed to be more about being able to wave something, being able to join in.

Banter … Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Banter … Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

And that’s where the music (and the second elephant) comes in. Under Sir Andrew Davis – baton-free and bantering with the crowd like a harmless pre-watershed entertainer of yore – the BBC Symphony Orchestra served a first half of fleet-footed jauntiness from Hindemith’s Neues vom Tage overture, gossamer textures and a finely melded BBC Symphony Chorus in Berlioz’s irrepressibly strange Lélio, and harmless mysticism from a new work by Roxanna Panufnik. Gerald Finley sounded oddly distant, if as suave as ever, in Stanford’s Songs of the Sea. A woman in the interval queue for the loos asked her friend: “Does it get more exciting?” Fair question.

In the second half, saxophonist Jess Gillam hurtled through a frantic Proms premiere of Milhaud’s Scaramouche, her sound even more tightly packed than the prommers. Finley took off his jacket, unbuttoned his shirt, left his music outside and put on a mic for the soliloquy from Rodgers’ Carousel. But why unbutton only for Carousel when the Songs of the Sea could also have been so much livelier? Would the inflatables and the “naughty” sonic interruptions be so appealing if classical music weren’t otherwise seen as a po-faced serious business?

Davis suggested in a recent interview that he might use the annual conductor’s speech to “get a bit serious about the lack of arts education in schools”. Well, he didn’t. But, without someone getting serious about that, his smooth assurance about music’s ability “to unite us” will ring increasingly hollow.

Flora Willson

The GuardianTramp

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