Last Night of the Proms review – party falls flat as BBC miss chance to speak up

Royal Albert Hall/Radio 3/BBC1
Despite desperate cheeriness from assorted guests and committed performances from all musicians, this event is about more than the music, and 2020’s concert failed to reflect current times

The decorations on the conductor’s podium weren’t promising. Neatly covered with paper streamers, a single L-plate half-buried among them, it was an overconscientious attempt to reproduce the gently anarchic silliness of classical music’s most famous closing-night party. The Last Night of the Proms is not just another concert. It’s an event all about its audience: its joyous, inflatable-toting, flag-waving, singing-and-knee-bobbing crowd of prommers, who whistle, whoop and drink their way through the evening. This year they were entirely absent.

Certainly, watching it on TV, the Last Night felt like a party to which no one had turned up, its organisers trying extra hard to make it “fun”. Presenter Katie Derham was joined not only by actor Adjoa Andoh and Rev Richard Coles (both warm, articulate commentators), but also via video by four other guests – comedian Mel Giedroyc, singer Lesley Garrett, jazz musician Jacob Collier (and his mum) and David James, an ex-footballer who used to play the cello. They were occasionally flashed on to our screens though hardly given a chance to speak. As the concert wore on, Garrett swayed ever more manically underneath a union jack umbrella. The camera work was just as hyperactive, cutting incessantly between close-ups of performers and dizzying lurches across the stage. By the time we were spun around as the Hornpipe from Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs accelerated, I felt distinctly nauseous.

A flag-waving audience join in the Last Night via Zoom.
A flag-waving audience join in the Last Night via Zoom. Photograph: BBC

But even such desperate cheeriness couldn’t entirely distract from the cloud that had been hanging over the event for weeks. On 23 August, a Sunday Times article reported that the BBC was considering scrapping Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory because “organisers fear a backlash because of their perceived association with colonialism and slavery”, sparking several days of furious “debate”. The programme was hurriedly confirmed – those items still featured but in their original instrumental versions rather than sung – before the culture secretary and then prime minister himself waded in, joining those baying for the upholding of “tradition”. But, as others have pointed out, the Proms are 125 years old this year and the “last night” programme has changed constantly in that time, including a radically different lineup in 2001, days after the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile conductor Dalia Stasevska – the second woman to conduct the Last Night – received death threats after she was said to believe it was time “to bring change” as the anti-racism movement has gathered pace this year.

In the event, the offending words were sung by 18 members of the BBC Singers, their performance energetic if inevitably underwhelming in such a vast space. Other musical voices had more impact and more to say. In Errollyn Wallen’s newly commissioned version of Parry’s Jerusalem, South African soprano Golda Schultz soared over an orchestra pulling riotously in different directions, the familiar hymn tune coming in and out of focus. Another world premiere, Solus by Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi was all pulsating dark sonorities, the chilling sound of detuned timpani and string agitation worthy of a Hitchcock soundtrack – about as comforting as a bloodthirsty episode of Nordic noir, but it felt like an honest response to the times.

Nicola Benedetti plays The Lark Ascending.
Daring … Nicola Benedetti plays The Lark Ascending. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Meanwhile violinist Nicola Benedetti’s performance of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending was both daring (her tone almost ghostly at times) and straightforwardly, overwhelmingly musical. The BBC Symphony Orchestra were on fine form, Stasevska’s conducting absolutely committed.

Once again, though: the Last Night has rarely been about the music. From soprano Jamie Barton waving the gay pride flag on stage in 2019 to Proms founder Henry Wood thanking prommers and sponsors for their support in August 1941 after the bombing of the Proms’ original venue, the Last Night has consistently reacted to the changing world around it. It is inevitably political. Music never floats free of “real life”, no matter how much we sometimes wish it could. Failing to acknowledge music’s capacity to act – not only to bring together and to heal, but also potentially to do harm – is to undermine what makes it precious. And at a time when the music industry is under serious threat and institutional racism has dominated headlines, this Last Night was a missed opportunity to speak up, take responsibility and show much-needed leadership.

• On iPlayer and BBC Sounds.


Flora Willson

The GuardianTramp

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