A month before the BBC Proms season starts, it’s always time for the Royal Philharmonic’s traditional Last Night to mark the end of their season. A packed Derngate Auditorium looked forward to a night of music and festivities, and there seemed to be considerably more flags and a lot more general audience cheekiness than in previous years.
Our conductor was Nick Davies, whom we have not seen on the podium before, but he seems like a laid-back and relaxed sort of chap from his programme photograph. His experience at conducting for musical theatre in West End productions like Mary Poppins and Evita no doubt stands him in good stead for taking charge of the evening of Classic’s Greatest Hits that is the RPO’s Last Night.
We started off with the sheer brilliance of Bizet’s Carmen – Prelude, Aragonaise and March of the Toreadors. That’s a fantastic way to get your classic juices flowing. Wasn’t it Stephen Sondheim who described Carmen as the greatest musical ever written? Or was it me, I can’t remember. Anyway, it was a superb, sunny, exhilarating opening, and it gave the orchestra the chance to shine right from the start.
Nick Davies then introduced our guest tenor, John Hudson, who has a string of accomplishments to his CV including all the decent opera roles in many of the decent opera companies. He has a jolly, avuncular appearance; if he wasn’t wearing the traditional operatic dinner jacket he would look just right in a mucky white apron behind a butcher’s counter. He started off with La donna è mobile from Rigoletto which he sang with wonderful warmth and expression.
Then it was time to introduce the home contingent on stage, the Northampton Bach Choir. We’ve heard them a few times before and they’re nearly always superb. Their first contribution to the evening was Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and, if I’m honest, they were a bit ragged. It was a performance that seemed to lack certainty, with sibilants flying all over the place and a range of final “t”s that ricocheted around the stage like a staccato stutter. However, when Mrs Chrisparkle and I were walking home after the concert we overheard one chorister-looking lady saying to her friend, “well, he never told us when to come in”, so maybe there was a little lack of understanding between Bach and Baton.
All rectified splendidly, however, with the next piece, Sibelius’ Finlandia, where the orchestra gave a superbly gutsy performance and the choir were strong and powerful with their Finnish call for independence sung in the original Finnish. It was very rousing, loud and entertaining. Then came more power from the choir in the Hallelujah Chorus that followed, which was beautifully sung and had great support from the orchestra.
John Hudson returned to perform Che gelida manina from La Bohème. “Your tiny hand is frozen, come thrust it in the fire, aah – aah…” as I was once prone inappropriately to sing. I’ve always loved this piece as it was one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite pieces of classical music and it always reminds me of her. Mr Hudson gave it a very tender rendition, which obviously channelled the emotion of it successfully, as little springs of moisture began to appear behind my specs. There was a slight problem though – when the orchestra really took flight they rather dominated our tenor and it was hard to hear him at times. Nevertheless, musically it was still a delight.
Then it was time for Antiphon (Let all the world) from Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, which was new to me – a very different version of “Let all the world in every corner sing” that I intoned at junior school. Challenging and difficult, I felt the Northampton Bach Choir gave it a very good stab.
The last number before the interval – and with a concert like this you can consider them “musical numbers” – was the Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker. It’s a beautiful tune and the orchestra played it magnificently. It has a long, self-indulgent, decadent harp element, which sounded stunning. From where I was sitting, the harpist was hidden by three violinists but I checked my programme and saw that it was Suzy Willison-Kawalec whom we have seen many times before. I thought she was on top form. It was only during the applause afterwards when Nick Davies invited the harpist to stand that I saw it was a young man! A little subsequent investigation has revealed that it was Daniel de Fry, who I guess must have been a last minute stand-in and he is definitely a star of the future.
After a nice glass of Cabernet Sauvignon we returned for the second half, and the starter piece, Walton’s Orb and Sceptre. I had noticed the appearance of a large speaker in the corner of the stage, four rows from where we were sitting and I wondered if it might affect us. I was right to wonder. A keyboard instrument had appeared during the interval – again from where I was sitting I couldn’t really see it properly – but certainly when it was played I couldn’t half hear it! It augmented the Orb and Sceptre very dramatically and, because the organ (I guess that’s what it was) didn’t have a huge part to play in the piece, it didn’t dominate it, but just helped give it power, emotion and a lot of oomph. However, there were moments later on in the concert when the organ was just too loud, to the detriment of the other instruments. I expect we were simply unfortunate to be as close to the speaker as we were.
The Northampton Bach Choir returned for more drama with Parry’s “I was glad” which is always a crowd pleaser and they performed it brilliantly; very musical, delightfully regal and full of joy. It was a superb contrast with the reflective beauty of Elgar’s Nimrod, which followed; serene on the strings, blossoming with emotion, conveying all those aspects of a deep friendship just as Elgar must have originally hoped; a lovely performance.
John Hudson returned for the choral version of Nessun dorma from Turandot. Mrs C and I have never really heard it this way before. Mr Hudson sang the aria beautifully and with great clarity, and just as you thought it was going to end, the choir came in sang that famous “chorus” again. Mrs C had hairs stand up on the back of her neck. It was thrilling; we loved it. The choir absolutely nailed it; it was indeed the individual performance of the night.
On the home straight now, as we were taken through our paces with Tom Bowling (cellist Tim Gill on super form) and the Hornpipe from Henry Wood’s Fantasia on Sea Songs. Once the hornpipe had started the audience participation wasn’t going to hold back. Often conductors like to encourage the audience to keep quiet through the first part of the hornpipe at least so that we can hear the beautiful music once; Mr Davies didn’t do that, and taps, claps and thumps started up pretty much from the word go. Someone in the boxes stage right started to give Mr Davies a mild heckling, to the enormous amusement of the orchestra. John Hudson led us through Rule Britannia (lovely but the organ was too loud) and Jerusalem (always my favourite) and we ended up with Pomp and Circumstance and Land of Hope and Glory; all rousing, wonderful stuff that got everyone in the patriotic mood. As an encore, the orchestra gave us their Can-Can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which also resulted in lots of clapping and stomping, and a very respectable looking elderly man in a box stage left, who had enjoyed the concert up to that point in a reserved and dignified way, went manic and started doing his own version of the Can-Can. He looked like Statler from the Muppet Show on speed.
It was a very enjoyable concert and a wonderful end to the RPO’s 2012-13 season. We’ve already booked our seats for next year! On the way back we walked past some of the choir and orchestra members spilling out of the stage door and heading for home, including Mr de Fry manfully propelling his (comparatively) giant harp up the street, peeking either side of it like a meerkat in attempt to navigate the road safely. Although he nearly ran us over crossing the road it did give us an opportunity to thank him for his great performance. Hi, ho, the glamorous life!