With the BBC Proms just around the corner – first night is Friday – what better way to wrap up this year’s classical season with the RPO than by having Northampton’s very own Last Night of the Proms. This is always a fun occasion, with a packed audience, lots of flag waving, and a programme full of old favourites so that there’ll always be something for everyone.
Our conductor this year was the jovial Owain Arwel Hughes, who conducted our Last Night of the Proms concert two years ago, and who we also saw take command of Fauré’s Requiem in 2011. He’s a very warm and friendly figure on the podium, enthusiastically communicating with his musicians, and with his shock of white hair and glasses perched on the end of his nose occasionally has something of a mad professor about him.
You can’t get much more of a lively start than Rossini’s William Tell overture. It galvanised the orchestra into a buzzing frenzy for its famous last section, and from my seat I could clearly see our First Violin Favourite Mr Russell Gilbert’s bow deftly darting over the waist of his violin whilst those of his colleagues doubtless did the same. Before all that, there was, however, a beautiful cello introduction to this piece, superbly played as always by Tim Gill.
Next, we were to enjoy the first contribution to the evening by the Northampton Bach Choir – a terrific performance of Zadok the Priest, full of power, crispness and joy. We could already tell the choir were going to be on great form. Then it was time for Fauré’s Pavane, beautifully and delicately played by the orchestra, expressing all its 19th century French elegance. One aspect of the Last Night programme is that it has many more individual pieces than normal, on average much shorter in length, which adds to the variety of the evening. It can also sometimes be a little frustrating though, when you hear a short piece that by rights should be part of a larger one – as in the next piece, the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Again the choir gave it a really good performance, but you felt a slight twinge of disappointment that there wasn’t more from the Messiah for our entertainment.
The last item before the interval, which certainly wasn’t an abridgement of anything else, was Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. With “Hallelujah” still ringing in our ears, it was time for that laborious moving aside of all the chairs and then lugging the Steinway onto the centre of the stage. “Why can’t it be there from the start?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle with more than a little petulance. “Well there would be no room for the conductor” I suggested. “But the conductor will still be there during the piano playing” she replied. I had no answer to that. The First Violins had all huddled by the entrance stairs, as if they’d nipped out for a quick fag break. Once everything was in place, Mr Hughes returned with our soloist for the evening, Danny Driver. What an incredible performer he is. Mr Driver played with such precision and attack that it took your breath away. Amongst all the keyboard gymnastics of the Rhapsody, there’s one stand-out variation that’s extremely lush and romantic, and feels very different from the rest of the piece. Mr Driver put his heart and soul into it – and it was just sumptuous to listen to. Mrs C and I were overwhelmed by how good he was; and the orchestra also gave him superb support in what was overall a stunning performance.
After a very pleasing Cab Sav break in the interval we returned for one of my favourite pieces of classical music, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. The female voices from the choir stood out particularly well, and whatever it was they were singing, it wasn’t Stranger in Paradise. I did have to stop myself – only partly successfully – from singing along to all the Kismet tunes. I’m only human, after all. It was a really stirring performance, and a great way to start the second half.
Then we had yet another of my favourite pieces, Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. No other piece of classical music captures that warm, safe, noble feeling of deep friendship that you get in Nimrod; but like the Hallelujah Chorus earlier on, it definitely lost something by not being part of a full Enigma performance. Normally it has me choking back the tears, but not this time. A change of mood next for Parry’s I Was Glad, with the choir in full voice, and the orchestra nicely augmented by Alistair Young on the keyboard providing a full organ effect as if we were in a massive cathedral. Visually odd, aurally wonderful.
Into the home straight with the classic final sequence. Starting off with Sir Henry Wood, we had two movements from the British Sea Songs: Tom Bowling, with Tim Gill exquisitely teasing out the melody on his cello, and the Hornpipe, which, despite Mr Hughes’ plea to allow the instrumentalists to have “first go” before we all joined in, was instantly drowned out by a few noisy people in the boxes, one of whom may well have been the manic man from last year. Being an incorrigibly obedient person, I waited with my claps and stomps until Mr Hughes cued me in. Then it was straight into Rule Britannia, with just the chorus being sung by the choir – and by us of course. I couldn’t help notice that the man with the clear voice singing behind me made two classic errors – he sang “Britannia rules the waves” (shocking) and “Britain never never never shall be slaves” (dreadful). I’m afraid the Last Night of the Proms brings out all my pomp and circumstance. Next Jerusalem, favourite classical singalong song of mine since my English teacher used to love to play it on the organ at school assembly over forty years ago. Have you noticed, at Last Nights generally, you might get an encore of Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, or the Hornpipe, or all three – but never Jerusalem. I’d be happy to start a campaign for the inclusion of Jerusalem in the repeats.
The final scheduled piece was Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, the aforementioned Land of Hope and Glory, where we impressed Mr Hughes with our magnificent lungs. Well not perhaps the manic man in the side stalls, whose voice clattered over everyone else’s; at first I thought we’d been joined by Zippy from Rainbow. But it wasn’t the end – they’d kept back a very appropriate encore for Northampton with a fantastic rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In, with the choir giving it everything and the orchestra loving every minute of it. A superb way to round off the evening.
Looking ahead to next year’s season, there’s some great highlights but I note that there isn’t a Last Night planned for next summer; the final concert then will be an evening of John Williams’ film music. Hmmm. Not quite the same I feel. Bring back the Last Night for 2016!