ITLL BE ALRIGHT ON THE LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS
IT’LL BE ALRIGHT ON THE LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS
Nick Roberts, Cellist, Coull Quartet
Marin Alsop (pictured above) became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms; translating the different musical languages of the composers into a singular voice from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Nick Roberts, cellist with the Coull Quartet, offers his thoughts on the pomp, circumstance and mixed emotions he feels, as a performer, towards the final concert of the Proms season.
There is often passionate debate about the repertoire performed each year, and always an ‘unjustly neglected’ composer is identified and indignant letters written. But, however the tides of musical taste have ebbed and flowed over the years, most people will agree that the BBC makes a massive contribution to musical life in the UK through the Proms. As a concert series, the promenade concerts are unique in the world and such a colossal feat of organisation, developed and refined over many years, that no-one in their right minds would think of trying to start their own version of it, even in the few countries where public service broadcasting is relatively strong.
The Last Night of the Proms is arguably one of the most famous musical events in the world. There is always a fantastic spirit that pervades the Proms and, as a performer, you are embraced by a wave of goodwill, expectation and enthusiasm as you walk up one of the ramps onto the stage. This spirit is finally allowed to let rip at the Last Night and I know that the orchestra absolutely love it and look forward to it.
Although I have never played with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Last Night of the Proms, I do have to confess to having horribly mixed feelings about the event. My constructive, rational side tells me that those who want to hear more than the customary eight minutes-worth of challenging or cutting-edge music have been amply provided for in the rest of the Proms and, as celebratory concert programmes go, it is incredibly well put together; a candy jar full of wonderful musical treats that millions of people will enjoy.
If you are into marches, you really cannot do much better than Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 even if, like Dr Frankenstein, the composer came to loathe his own creation! Bernstein’s exuberant overture to Candide never fails to thrill, and Britten’s The Building of the House should impress, with a dark, unsettling energy underlying its extrovert technical brilliance. If wistful nostalgia is your thing, then Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending is a perfect and powerfully evocative essay in the genre, with the added bonus of it being performed on Saturday by Nigel Kennedy, a truly wonderful violinist whose media image is belied by the searing intensity and emotional depth of his musical voice.
My instinctive, gut reaction is to run a mile from the Last Night of the Proms and all that is associated with it
In contrast, my instinctive, gut reaction is to run a mile from the Last Night of the Proms and all that is associated with it in my mind. Of course I should regard it as a harmless bit of fun but the early years of my career coincided with Thatcher’s worst ‘Little Englander’ excesses in Europe, the revival of gunboat diplomacy, the triumph of tabloid values over intelligent debate and the mindless destruction of whole swathes of industrial Britain. In order to make ends meet as a young cellist I often had to play in the invariably mediocre ‘imitation’ Last Nights that seemed to be popular at the time and, in the prevailing climate, playing Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory, usually in a muddy field in the middle of nowhere, was always a profoundly depressing experience. What on earth was there to wave a flag about?
But so much for the scars and hang-ups of my early career. The real Last Night of the Proms will be a first rate concert with a brilliantly varied programme of which the founder of the Proms, Sir Henry Wood, would have been proud; and as the first conductor in Britain to insist on having both men and women in his Queen’s Hall Orchestra, I am sure he would also have been proud of Marin Alsop. She is a highly respected conductor and will do a great job on Saturday: in a short article such as this, the only possible comment I can make about her being the first woman to conduct the Last Night is ‘better late than never’!
Furthermore, the BBC Symphony Orchestra is a superb orchestra, often forgotten about when people talk about the “four London orchestras” and it deserves far wider recognition for the quality and breadth of its work. For the players, the Last Night of the Proms is the culmination of an intensive and exhausting period of work with a host of distinguished conductors and soloists, but it is most certainly not a low-key, low profile event to round off the season before their annual holiday.
In fact, looking at the list of repertoire, I suspect that it could more readily be described as a ‘roast up’: and all to be played under the remorseless heat and glare of the television lights. A concert full of short items such as this is nearly always much harder work than a symphonic programme, both to put together and to perform. It might appear to be easier, with frequent breaks between pieces and no vast musical structures to sustain and project, but this is a cruel illusion. An hour will race past if, for instance, you are playing a Mahler Symphony, as you will be swept along, completely wrapped up in the composer’s unique sound world and musical language. This also has an impact on the rehearsal process where, once a conductor and orchestra have established the expressive and structural parameters of such a large-scale work, and perhaps tackled specific passages and technical issues, whole sections fall into place without much further detailed rehearsal.
No such luck with the Last Night programme. Out of a grand total of twenty-one works to be played, there are two new commissions, nine or ten pieces that are by no means standard repertoire and only a handful of pieces that most BBC Symphony Orchestra players would be able to play blindfolded while standing on their heads! They are like exquisite, highly detailed miniatures rather than vast landscape paintings and, in rehearsal, the conductor and orchestra have to understand and master the language and intricacies of each one. This takes much more time than you might think, and I have known situations where whole chunks of a programme have been virtually sight-read in the concert when a conductor has miscalculated the rehearsal.
In the concert the performers have to be able to switch successfully and instantly from one composer’s musical language and character to the next, and the main burden of responsibility for achieving absolute unity in this task falls to the conductor. The ‘upbeat’ given before the first notes are played is absolutely crucial. In fact it should convey all the information that the players need to play the piece, at least until the next change of tempo, character or dynamic is indicated by the composer. Likewise, as a player, successfully interpreting the upbeat and playing the first beat or bar in perfect synchronisation with your colleagues can be the main challenge, with the rest of it often being relatively plain sailing.
I suppose what it boils down to is that, in a concert of this nature, there are so many more opportunities for it all to go horribly wrong. So if you happen to be watching or listening to the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, do spare a thought for the players, chorus and conductor. I know they will all be enjoying themselves and soaking up the atmosphere of this unique event but it is a tough gig!
Nicholas Roberts is the cellist with the Coull Quartet. Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Warwick since 1977, the Coull Quartet has performed and broadcast throughout the UK, the USA and Western Europe, and has also toured China, India, the Far East, South America and Australia. The Quartet has appeared at most of the major music societies and festivals in the UK and gives an annual series of recitals at the Warwick Arts Centre.
Main Image: Marin Alsop by Grant Leighton. Picture shows: Marin Alsop conducts soprano Rachel Harnisch, baritone Henk Nevin, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as the Last Night of the Proms. Prom 47 TX live on BBC Radio 3 on 17 August /Prom 75 TX live on BBC Radio 3, First half live on BBC Two, second half live on BBC One 7 September Marin Alsop. C/O BBC Pictures.
A pleasant change from politics : the musical culture of the British labour movement, 1918-1939. Duncan Hall (2000) PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
Four essays on efficiency and productivity of cultural institutions : empirical analyses of orchestras, theatres and museums. Mervi A. Taalas (1999) PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
Many spheres of music : hermeneutic interpretation of musical signification. Tomoo Thomas Oda (2006). PhD thesis, University of Warwick.