Last Night of The Proms 2023.


I went, I saw, was I conquered?  The Last Night of the Proms was something I considered an archaic musical expression of British jingoism.  The sea of Union Jacks was always a worrying sign of empire, colonisation and nationalism.  And yes, there were the hundreds of Union Jacks held high but there were an equal number of European Union flags seemingly proclaiming ‘we hate Brexit and the Little England mentality that accompanies it’.

It was the presence of the hundreds of blue EU flags which made me realise that the Last Night of the Proms is not just a xeno-fest.  It is a testimony to the international element of art and music.

There was no antipathy between flag-wavers of different political persuasions.  In fact the atmosphere was that of a party.   There was a warm interaction between audiences, conductor and musicians.  Why was this night so different from any other night? Well because on this night the audience has not come to merely watch and listen to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers: it has come to celebrate.

The inexhaustible, Marin Alsop led three hours of very different offerings with aplomb, humour and great skill.  She is one of the great conductors of our age.  As the evening ended  Alsop reminded us that it is 10 years since she appeared as the first woman conductor at the Proms and informed us that it will take 134 years for gender parity according to the latest Global Gender Gap Report.  I enjoyed her provocative feminist intervention which provoked those who had come to sing, flag wave and sink into nostalgia that there are huge struggles that women face with the over-representation of men in the public sphere.

Alsop is a cultural politician and a consummate conductor.   Within this very mixed programme, she finds a way of uniting the discursive and giving symmetry where there is none.

The first half is a pot pourri designed to give everyone at least one work to love.  There were extracts from Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre, Roxanna Panufnik’s Coronation Sanctus, James Wilson’s 1922, William Walton’s Te Deum, Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Guiseppe Verdi’s Macbeth.  This felt like an odd collection of party pieces but nobody cared.  However, there were disappointments.  Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing cello for Kol Nidre and, in the second half, for Samuel-Coleridge-Taylor’s Deep River was underpowered.   He has a fine technique but where was the poignancy and pain endemic to both compositions? His interpretations were quiet and overly modest.  The balance between him and the orchestra and the huge belt of soprano Lise Davidsen, felt unequal.

What was most pleasing was that of the three world premieres two were by women.  Roxanna Panufnik’s Coronation Sanctus is a gorgeous choral work.  This was followed by James B Wilson’s 1922; an epic drama with disturbing elements that would lend itself to cinema.  In the second act Laura Karpman’s Higher Further, Faster, Together (Main Theme from the Marvels) is a film soundtrack which is about to be released and which features feminist superheroesThe Royal Albert Hall encouraged the audience to participate in this amazing and exciting composition.  Everyone was given a luminous wristband.  When Karpman’s dynamic score thrilled spectators, they joyously waved their luminous wrists and the Albert Hall’s tiers became a sky of 5000 fireflies.

There were of course political under and overtones within many elements of the programming.  Emmerich Kálman’s The Gypsy Princess is an astounding work which rings out in defiance against Nazi oppression of Jewish musicians.  And in his presentation of The Gypsy Princess, we are reminded of how half or Europe’s Sinti and Roma were annihilated in the Shoah.   Lise Davidsen as Kálman’s Princess possesses is a titanic performance.  The sign of a true artist is when she makes the audience believe that she has composed the lyrics and the music.  Davidsen does this and has the audience howling for more.

But it is the second half’s traditional music that the audience is waiting for as balloons are thrown up in the air.  The British Sea Songs start the section of national indulgence.  When The Sailor’s Hornpipe is played, the promenaders bend their knees in a tiny dance.   It is a song taught to children in English primary schools.  It masks the horror of life at sea, particularly when men were press-ganged into the navy.  But the music is charming and here is the tension between history and its musical representation.  How far does a nation use music to promote its propaganda? is the question underlying this section of the Last Night of the Proms.

The wedding cake building is steeped in monarchical history from its conception by Queen Victoria, to its name.  Should the tradition of singing of Rule Britannia and God Save the King be scrapped at this point when we question the glorification of the British Empire? This Empire is gone and, after Brexit, England seems diminished and retrograde.  However being  at the Last Night of the Proms made me question the question.  The ticket holders who come to party, the artists, singers and musicians are not all little Englanders; the crowd is more complex than that of a football team roaring for the victory of its tribe.

I heard two Catholic, Dublin women, who were previously strangers to one another, ask one another why they were here at the Last Night of the Proms.  Their question was loaded with unspoken history.  One said, ‘well it’s a spectacle that I wanted to see’.  The other replied ‘It’s the music!’ These Irish women revealed how they could rise above old hatreds.  Indeed, there were Irish flags draped around the auditorium.  It seems that the party attracts those who are able to disagree about politics because of their passionate shared love of music.  But it would be naive to say that art and music transcends all because although Bruch, Kálman and Coleridge Taylor featured in this momentous Prom, so did Wagner.  And we know that music is not apolitical.

Julia Pascal © 2023.