Mrs Chrisparkle and I have always enjoyed our visits to the Last Night of the Proms – Derngate style, that is – although we did once get to see the real thing in the Albert Hall which was indeed a privilege. As usual, I booked for this show as part of our subscription package with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Last Night is always a very entertaining – if essentially shallow – flick through some of Classic’s Greatest Hits in the lead up to the usual flag-waving extravaganza of Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory.
The Derngate Auditorium was packed to the rafters for this final concert in the RPO’s annual season. Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, new to us, and as Mr Hudson himself explained, he was new to Northampton. But I think both Mr Hudson and Northampton got on very well with each other. He’s a charming host, with a reassuring voice of honey, providing an entertaining and informative running commentary on all the pieces we were going to hear. As a conductor, he’s not one of those who over-exerts himself but manages to get the best from the orchestra whilst retaining a simple air of dignity and authority. In honour of the gala occasion, the word had gone out to the ladies of the RPO to wear strikingly coloured gowns, so the stage was awash with beautiful reds, greens, and blues. Mrs C pointed out that if I mentioned what the ladies were wearing, I should, for the sake of equality, also pass comment on the gentlemen’s appearance. They were in their stock penguin suits. They obviously didn’t get the same memo. However, if we are concentrating on appearances, I must congratulate harpist Mr Hugh Webb on his spectacular moustache. His harpistry was pretty spectacular too.
There were eighteen pieces to listen to. Eighteen! Seventeen in the programme and one encore. Given that the concert lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes, and including 20 minutes for the interval and say 20 minutes for chat and applause, I estimate the average time per musical item to be about 5 and a half minutes. It’s not really long enough to get fully engrossed in any particular piece; but on the plus side, if you don’t like any particular item, it won’t be long before it’s over and the next one has started!
The programme began with the overture to Rossini’s Thieving Magpie – probably one of the longer pieces of the evening as it happens – lively, fun, and full of the joys of orchestration. The RPO were obviously going to be on great form. Then came the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, one of my favourite pieces of music, played with lush exquisiteness by the strings. When I was a kid I wanted to write an opera (I know, always had grand plans, me); I often used to think how chuffed Mascagni must have been to win that opera-writing competition, and what a brass neck he had to write the Intermezzo so that his two-act opera became a one-act opera, and therefore eligible for the prize. Clever chap.
So that was two Italians – now for a Czech: Dvořák’s Song to the Moon, from his opera Rusalka. We welcomed soprano Deborah Norman to the stage for the first of four appearances to sing this famous aria, although it’s not one with which I’m that attuned. Miss Norman certainly transported us to a lunar scenario, with her engaging interpretation and glittery voice. Then we had the famous Onedin Line theme from Khachaturian’s Spartacus suite – I know he didn’t strictly write it for the BBC but it’s what every one of my generation associates with it. I thought this was performed absolutely terrifically; incredibly stirring, a full tidal wave of emotion. Khachaturian was to be the first of two Russians – next was Tchaikovsky with the Sleeping Beauty Waltz, a timeless piece of sheer delight, again played beautifully by the orchestra.
Anyone who knows me, understands that I don’t do Gilbert and Sullivan. Yes, I know, it’s a failing on my part; and I have tried, believe me. But, as the old song in Liza of Lambeth goes, nothing is duller than Gilbert and Sullivan, in the British tradition they’re palpably rooted, the music is trivial and far from convivial, the words are appallingly convoluted. (Don’t worry, I won’t quote the whole song.) So I confess I wasn’t looking forward to Deborah Norman’s performance of The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze (even the title is so trite in its need to rhyme) by Sir Arthur Sullivan, an aria (if you can call it that) from The Mikado. But, guess what? I really enjoyed it! I think it was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed any one song from G&S. Don’t get me wrong – I’m never going to be a convert. But I was most surprised to hear its delicacy and sweetness.
After the atrocity in Nice on Friday, Gareth Hudson simply said in his introduction to the next piece that he would like to dedicate it to the people of France. André Caplet’s orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune received a stunning performance from the orchestra and it was a very moving moment. The first half of the concert wound up with another blistering performance, this time of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, No 2: Farandole, a piece I can never remember until I hear it, which is when I instantly remember how much I love it.
It was after the interval that things just started to get a little weird. Not musically – by any means; the RPO continued to give a fantastic performance. Mrs C and I just got the sense that this year’s flag-waving jingoism had taken on a little more… shall we say, sinister aspect. It all started in the first piece after the interval, the splendid overture to the operetta Light Cavalry by Franz von Suppé. The orchestra really got into its military stride with this, creating a fantastic rhythm; but the elderly lady sitting further along the row from us got totally carried away and started to pretend that she was on a horse, bobbing up and down with the rhythm, swaying the reins, and basically giving us all the giddy-ups. That’s fine. Good music well performed can do this to a person.
We welcomed back Deborah Norman to give us a tender rendition of Je veux vivre, from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. This piece was new to me and I found it very touching and full of that youthful enthusiasm we would associate with the young tragic heroine. Then it was time for the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. We saw this performed in Bratislava a few years ago and absolutely loved it – but I regret I couldn’t particularly remember the Polonaise. The RPO gave it a full-on rumbustious run for its money and the audience responded really warmly to it. Then came – for me, at least – perhaps the most rewarding performance of the evening – Two Songs Without Words (Country Song and Marching Song) by Gustav Holst. As Mr Hudson mentioned in his introduction, Holst’s back catalogue became completely eclipsed (pardon the pun) by the success of his Planets Suite, reducing the rest of his output to virtual insignificance. So here were two earlier pieces that rarely get performed, and I thought they were sensational. This is the English Folk Music-inspired Holst, rather than the astronomically-inspired version, although I definitely heard a music prequel of Jupiter somewhere in there. A fantastic performance of (for me) an exciting find. This section of the concert wrapped up with (as the RPO often do) those few minutes of intense emotion that constitute Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Nimrod never does quite give you that same tingle when it’s played outside of the context of a full performance of the Variations, but nevertheless, it’s still a magnificent piece and gives you a few moments to cherish those you love and remember those you’ve lost.
It was Gareth Hudson’s introduction to the final sequence of patriotic numbers that encapsulated whatever it was that had been bothering us. He said (and I paraphrase) that no matter how we all voted in a certain referendum recently, we should take the opportunity to allow the evening’s music to unite us. Now forgive me, gentle reader, for going off piste here, and I know this may alienate many of you to bring politics into music, but Mrs C and I are still very much coming to terms with (what we feel is) the (disastrous) result of the referendum. The wounds have gone very deep; it’s going to be a long time before the healing takes place (indeed, if it ever does). Surrounded by an audience made up of almost entirely white, middle-aged to elderly, middle-class Northamptonians (our town voted 59-41 in favour of Brexit) we suddenly realised the extent to which we were in the minority in that room. The patriotism of our neighbours all waving the flags and standing, Nuremberg rally-like, to Land of Hope and Glory, felt very, very uncomfortable. I can’t help it – at the moment I’m not proud of our country, so I couldn’t permit myself to get up and join the others. I was happy to sing it, as I always am. But there was a swelling of nationalistic pride going on in that hall on Sunday night with which I really did not want to associate myself.
Back on piste. Our final sequence of music was as unchanging as the waning moon, starting with Tom Bowling and the Hornpipe from Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Mr Hudson introduced lead cellist Tim Gill for the Tom Bowling and he was exceptional as usual, bringing out all that deep-seated sadness and searing emotion from its lamentation-like theme. The Hornpipe, of course, couldn’t be a greater juxtaposition, with Mr Hudson already encouraging us to clap along, even if, (of course), we all did it too loudly, too enthusiastically, and too early. Ms Norman returned for the final time (a little early in fact, as Mr Hudson was still humiliating us with My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean, making us stand, then sit, each time a word beginning with a B comes along – think about it, it gets exhausting) for Rule, Britannia! And I really appreciate it when all three verses are sung in full. Jerusalem, which followed, has much claim to be my own personal favourite song of all time, and nothing’s going to stop me from bellowing each syllable as if I were still in Morning Assembly in 1973. And finally, a lively and fun performance of the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, which got our Cavalry overture lady up on her feet at the first whiff of a land of Hope and Glory. All credit to her, when no one else got up so early she didn’t budge but held her ground. Classic rule – if you ovate and no one else does, it looks appalling if you sit down again. Have the courage of your convictions! Reservations (as per the previous paragraph) aside, it was a wonderful performance.
And it was also with great pleasure that I realised it wasn’t to be quite the final number of the night. As an encore, and once again with a respectful nod to France and maybe something to assuage the Bremainers, Mr Hudson returned to the podium to crack out a fun and frolicsome performance of Offenbach’s Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld – the Can Can. Now that did deserve an ovation.
No more Royal Philharmonic Orchestra here in Northampton until much later in the year – and unfortunately we can’t make that concert! Still we’ll look forward to re-acquainting ourselves with the RPO next February.