My Experience at the Proms

     Yes, that’s right. I attended the BBC Proms a couple of nights ago in my hometown in the United States.

     Well, sort of. As it was, I found that there was going to be a special screening of the Last Night of the Proms – as it was seen on the BBC on the evening of September 12th – at select movie theaters (cinemas, in British parlance) across the country, and upon finding that it would be featured at one theater in Savannah, I purchased my ticket.

     The Proms – officially known as the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts after their first conductor – are arguably the world’s greatest musical festival, and have been a British summer time institution for over a century. The Last Night is the most iconic part of the whole season, which runs from July to September, and is what most people think of with regard to the Proms. I have seen bits and pieces of Last Night celebrations, and have also listened to it over the radio, but had never seen the whole occasion from end to end.

     The result was that I was really excited and stoked about attending this special screening and looked forward to a great British time.

Image Credit: Wesley Hutchins

Image Credit: Wesley Hutchins

     It began at 7:00PM, but on this day, I did not get off from work until 7:15PM. Fortunately, the theater was not that far from my job, and I arrived in the auditorium just in time to watch a video which featured a history of the Proms, and specifically, the people who attend them – the Prommer’s, some of whom are annual attendee’s over the course of years, if not decades. This is their special season, the one which they look forward to every year, and it was good to see that dedication to such an awesome event.

     Unfortunately, the same could not be said about the attendance in the theater auditorium, for including myself, there were only ten people there. This was quite disappointing, and may have been a result of a lack of promotion. After all, I had only found out about the event via a friend on a Facebook group, and that was by chance. However, I believe that the poor attendance had much to do with the event being held on Wednesday night – the middle of the work week – as opposed to a Friday or Saturday night on the weekend, when more people have time for leisure activities.

     Nevertheless, it was at least good that I was not alone that evening, and looking at the program from the BBC’s website, I realized that I did not miss that much – only two selections: the world premiere of the BBC-commissioned Arise, Athena! by Eleanor Alberga and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major.

     Following the video, the presenter (or as we say in America, the host/anchor) Katie Derham guided us through the proceedings on a platform overlooking the main floor of the Royal Albert Hall in London, which has been the home of the Proms since World War II. Derham introduced us to Arvo Part’s Credo, a 12 minute-long piece from 1968, which is characterized by a combination of rite and scripture, as well as the social and spiritual conflicts faced by Part himself during this period. The chanting by the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers, as well as the performance of BBC Symphony Orchestra was quite powerful and at times, produced a cacophony of noise which was meant to symbolize good vs. evil. Indeed, the Soviet authorities at the time were suspicious of the religious overtones and the apparent message of passive opposition to their authority (in his native Estonia), and the music was not performed there for several years after its original outing.

     But here, it was performed in all of its glory and sense of spiritual uplifting. It was followed up by Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), a musical chronicle of the pranks and misadventures of a peasant folk hero from Germany. If it was a bit more light and less powerful than Credo, it was certainly made up for by the rather crafty tone which befitted the conduct of the title character.

     Following this was a break in the action in which another video was shown, this time about the people who make the Proms and keep it going every year. It was a fascinating look at the work of the organizers, camera operators, stage hands, engineers, lighting crews, musicians, and so many others who are the unsung and (quite often) unseen hero’s of the Proms and everything that they do in the course of the concert season which make the Proms quite memorable and thoroughly enjoyable as the greatest music festival in the world.

     Part of that greatness is born in the fact that the Proms attracts top-flight musical talent from around the world, and to conclude the first part of the night was the exceedingly impressive German operatic tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, who performed selections from three operas by Giacomo Puccini: Tosca, Manon Lescaut, and Turandot. The power of his voice at times was like trombones within itself which pierced through the instrumental sounds to take over the whole stage and fill up the entire hall, and the crowds lapped up to it in earnest.

The Royal Albert Hall - current home of the Proms. Image Credit:  Drow Male  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

The Royal Albert Hall - current home of the Proms. Image Credit: Drow Male via Wikimedia Commons cc

     Before heading to intermission, another video was shown which featured highlights from the whole Proms season beginning in July. Among other things, there was a piano soloist masterfully playing George Gershwin’s iconic Rhapsody in Blue, an African-American group performing Sing, Sing, Sing, a children’s chorus singing Zadok the Priest, the sounds from the Finale of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, and many other great musical selections from throughout the season by various groups, bands, and solo artists – some famous, other not so – from around the world. Indeed, it appeared to have been a fun, exciting, and eventful concert season – with the best still yet to come in part 2 of the broadcast.

     During the 10-minute intermission, I stepped out of the auditorium to grab some popcorn from the concession stand. Typically, I do not this because of the exorbitant prices, and the popcorn I bought – a small bag of it – ended up costing me $6.62 (with tax). Unbelievable, and against my better judgment this was, but I was in a good mood following the first half of the Proms, and since this was a week night with the theater virtually empty, there was no long line as may be typical on a more crowded evening on Friday's or the weekend (though if it meant having more people in the auditorium, then that would have been preferable).

     Upon return to the auditorium, the second half of the great show commenced with Katie Derham taking us to witness the highlights from the parallel Prom in the Park events around the United Kingdom. In Hyde Park, nearby the Royal Albert Hall, Australian-American soprano Danielle de Niese was singing Granada, a fast-based and highly-energetic tune by Mexican composer Agustin Lara before an outdoor crowd of over 20,000. At Singleton Park in Swansea, saxophonist Alexander Bone teamed up with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for a pleasant performance of the whimsical song Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. North of the Cheviots in Glasgow, I Will Always Love You – immortalized by the late Whitney Houston – was soul-stirringly sung by Alexandra Burke with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra before a large crowd on Glasgow Green, none of whom could have been left with a dry eye at the conclusion of that emotional performance. Across the North Channel in Belfast, the Riverdance group – celebrating their 20th anniversary this year – performed an Irish folk dance routine backed by the Ulster Orchestra on Titanic Slipways, the area on which the RMS Titanic and her sister ships were built.

     It was all quite good to have a taste of the events going on elsewhere throughout the UK with the enormous wealth and diversity of talent on display. Following this, everyone from all over the country joined the main event at the Royal Albert Hall where the second half opened up with a bang in the form of the jazz standard Victory Stride by American James P. Johnson. Indeed, while the first half was mainly heavy on classical music, the second half would be a looser and lighter affair, with Victory Stride providing an appropriate start. It was a dynamic piece of music to which I and others in the theater could get into along with the Prommers on the screen, who themselves were having a good time as the real party started.

     Indeed, this was the part of the night when some members of the orchestra and singing groups were decked out with decorations, such as glitter and flags hanging from music stands, and the bust of Sir Henry Wood overlooking the hall was graced with a wreath. In the audience, the sounds of streamers, poppers, and air horns could be increasingly heard throughout the hall as the previously sober and serious atmosphere gave way to an atmosphere of mischief, wackiness, and good-natured British sense of fun, albeit with an American twist – and not just with the music.

     This came in the form of Marin Alsop, the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra who made history two years previously as the first woman to conduct the Last Night, and who was now back for her second go it. Following Victory Stride, she stood before the crowd – on a well-decorated conductor’s platform – and rendered a warm welcome to the audience in the hall and elsewhere throughout the UK and around the world, and engaged the Prommers in the hall, Hyde Park, Singleton Park, Glasgow Green, and Titanic Slipways to greet one another in a wholesome spirit of togetherness.

     The American influence of this Last Night was continued with a performance of Aaron Copland’s I Bought Me a Cat from Old American Songs, and to make things interesting, it featured an extraordinary sing-a-along effort – with the first two verses sung by the audience in the hall, followed by one verse sung by each audience in the park events in the following order of Hyde Park, Swansea, Glasgow, and Belfast. Then, everyone joined in for the last verse in a spectacular finish to the light-hearted and somewhat disjointing song to rapturous applause up and down the country. It was, as Derham said, like going on a tour of the national farmland of the United Kingdom, and as Alsop had hoped, the technology gods had cooperated in this effort.

     We were then treated to the gifted hands of Benjamin Grovesnor, who masterfully performed George Gershwin’s Love Walked In and Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude, the latter of which lived up to its name with the audiences getting more of a pop in their step following the more gentle selection.

Main HAll of the Royal Albert Hall from above. Image Credit:  yisris  via  Flickr   cc

Main HAll of the Royal Albert Hall from above. Image Credit: yisris via Flickr cc

     After this was a small break in the action during which the Proms celebrated the 50th anniversary of Rodgers' and Hammerstein's Sound of Music by featuring a collage of videos with several ordinary Briton’s performing Do-Re-Mi from the great musical. Among those showcased were nuns, children’s groups, community choirs, family's, as well as a host of individual efforts from all across the UK, including the BBC’s own Jeremy Vine in Glasgow and some of its staff and other presenters. It was an eclectic mix of young and old, from various backgrounds, creeds, and faiths – all of it wrapped in the overall sense of being British on this most British of occasions.

     But the show was back on the road with Jonas Kaufmann making a return to the hall to perform Lehar’s The Land of the Smiles, Danielle de Niese hoping over from Hyde Park to artfully enlighten the crowd with The Girls of Cadiz, and Peer Gynt, Op 23 (Morning) tranquilly performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra – led by the leaf-like flutes and gradually building to a decent satisfaction by the whole ensemble.

     Danielle di Niese was brought back to further honor the 50th anniversary of the Sound of Music by leading a supreme performance of its medley with all of the UK participating at the same time in what Marion Alsop claimed was the biggest sing-a-long ever. It was certainly a brilliant moment shared by all who were in the hall, in the parks, and watching or listening from home or wherever they happened to be located.

     And yet, all of this was but a prelude to the very best part of the night with some of the favorites of British patriotic music being played to finish out the spectacular evening.

     First up was Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March, No. 1Land of Hope and Glory. Truly one of the great pieces of music in the world, it was born out of the age of imperial height and expansion, but today decently captures the hopes and aspirations of the British people for themselves and their country, the United Kingdom, so that it can be a better country and so that they can lead better and more fruitful lives. For this reason, it is like an alternative national anthem with an inspiring air to it which provides a huge burst of patriotic passion. The climactic ending was enthusiastically played twice, and to the supreme satisfaction and joy of the people.

     This was followed by two selections from another favorite: Fantasia on British Sea Songs - a nine part medley of maritime songs which was arraigned by Sir Henry Wood himself. The two selections performed that night were like night and day, with Home, Sweet Home providing a soft and measured melody tinged with a bit of nostalgia as the audience elegantly hummed to the tune of the oboe as it was played. Then there was Jack’s the Lad, with its repeated melody starting slow with the flutes and than building up at a faster pace as more instruments joined in. It was a bit of a kooky rendition with seemingly deliberate and disjointed mistakes in the early part to amuse the audience, who clapped and stomped to the three beats at the end of each repeated line of the music (and causing enough rocking to shake the cameras). As the end approached, the pace had quickened to result in a dramatic climax with the energy of everyone going to a new high.

     Fantasia then set the stage for another song about Britain and the sea: Rule Britannia! It is arguably one of the most iconic of all British patriotic songs, with it being performed to represent the country around the world in such a way that it – like Land of Hope and Glory – sometimes feels like the national anthem. (Indeed, I had once thought it was the national anthem and I suppose many of my fellow Americans think it is as well.) For this year’s performance, Jonas Kaufmann was brought in to sing the main lyrics whilst the crowd and the choir sang the electrifying chorus part. Kaufmann made history as the first German to lead Rule Britannia, and he did not fail to make an outstanding impression with his voice leading the way and providing enormous excitement for the crowds in the hall and elsewhere - truly rocking the Proms.

Proms in the Park at Hyde Park, London. Image Credit:  Neil Rickards  via  Flickr   cc

Proms in the Park at Hyde Park, London. Image Credit: Neil Rickards via Flickr cc

     Those crowds were now really getting into the spirit of the night, and this is truly where the Proms is very special. In addition to the singing, people also displayed their British patriotism with the Union Flag of the United Kingdom, which was seen throughout the night in the form of fancy and funny hats, socks, bow ties, dresses, and vests. In addition, there was a Sikh gentleman in the BBC Symphony Chorus who wore a Union Flag-themed turban, and Jonas Kaufmann caused a frenzy by throwing a pair of the flag-themed boxer shorts to the audience following Rule Britannia! Most importantly, it was proudly flying from the hands of thousands of people that evening, as were also those of the Home Nations of the UK – the Red Dragon of Wales, the Saltire of St. Andrew and the Red Lion Rampant for Scotland, St. George’s Cross for England, and St. Patrick’s Saltire and the Ulster Banner for Northern Ireland. The Channel Island flags for Jersey and Guernsey were also on display, as were those from the Isle of Mann and some counties – like Yorkshire and Cornwall. Still yet, there were some American Stars and Stripes in the crowds, along with Irish and French tricolors, the flags of Australia and New Zealand, as well as Canada, Jamaica, South Africa, India, Germany, Spain, the flags of sports teams, as well as the EU and UN flags.

     On top of all this was the supreme sight of seeing so many people from various backgrounds, cultures, creeds, and faiths – all having a good time and sharing in this moment of a truly British night all around. Indeed, it showed how the Proms is able to bring these people to together to celebrate their common sense of being British and enjoying the company of one another – bring them together and allowing them, if even for only a moment, to forget their differences and join together as one.

     This was said as much by Marin Alsop - the woman of the hour - as she faced the crowd following Rule Britannia! to give her closing speech.  She spoke about the power of music to bring people together like few other things do, and that even though it does not solve the great issues of our time, it can provide a bridge for greater understanding and cooperation to make solving these issues a bit easier. If nothing else, moments like the Last Night are good for getting out and sharing a special time with, and bringing voices together among, fellow citizens.

     Alsop made this point personal by referencing her own hometown of Baltimore, which has experienced protests social tensions over the last year in response to what many people believed was the wrongful death of a black man whilst in police custody. She spoke of how efforts involving her and other Baltimore musicians to get more kids interested in music and other fine arts, so as to give them opportunities to find their talents and make something out of themselves and perhaps be in her place one day.

     She particularly emphasized the need for girls and women to get into music and appealed for more support for the arts – privately and publicly – and to this end, she thanked the Prommers for helping to raise a record £107,000 for musical charities over the course of the Proms season. Alsop also thanked them for being a great – if also wacky and somewhat unruly – audience, and gave praise to all the people, seen and unseen, who made this Proms season one of the best thus far, and for this, she got a rapturous applause.

     Her remarks having been well-received, Alsop continued on with the final leg of the night – beginning with a wholesome performance of Jerusalem. Its sweet and soft melody set against the powerful imagery of its lyrics was pleasantly received by the crowd which sung it in earnest.

     Then came arguably the most important part of the night: the performance of the National Anthem of the United Kingdom. As has been the case most years, it was Benjamin Britten’s stirring arraignment that was performed with the chorus singing the first verse ever so softly, which led to a spine-thrilling build up and the full-throated strains of the orchestra, singing groups, and the crowds inside and outside the hall on the second verse – punctuated with a spectacular climax featuring the last line of “God Save the Queen!” being sung three times to close out the anthem.

     Inside the theater two rows in front of me, there was one person who stood during the anthem in solidarity with almost everyone on the screen. Whether she was British was not of any significance because what mattered was that she had that kind of respect for the United Kingdom and its people. Indeed, it was quite inspiring to watch all of those people – thousands of them – with their flags, funny dresses, hats, and costumes, and in many cases, just themselves joining together and singing with one “heart and voice” in honor of Her Majesty and with reverence and pride in the country over which she reigns. At the end of the day, it is the people who make this country.

     At the conclusion of the National Anthem, Alsop struck up the orchestra to perform Auld Lang Syne, the traditional closing song of the Proms, and it was truly a moment of warm fellowship and camaraderie as everyone joined in the arm crossing of hands and extended a true farewell to one another until next year. To top it all off (and in a sign of the times), Alsop raised a selfie stick to take two cheeky selfies: one of herself and the audience in the hall, and then another with the orchestra and chorus in a final hurrah for the glorious night. Take that, Nicola Sturgeon.

     And so ended my “experience” at the Proms, which was so memorable and well worth the money for the ticket (though perhaps not the popcorn). As enjoyable of an experience it was, it is nothing compared to actually being there in person, so as to truly get a feel for what it is like to be among those crowds of Prommers, with all of the good-natured fun and togetherness that entails. Personally, it would a treat if I managed to attend the main Prom event at the Royal Albert Hall, as well as the Prom in the Park in the events throughout the country with their unique programs.

     However, this is where I do have one particular gripe with what I saw. Following the Sound of Music medley with Danielle di Niese, the Glasgow Green and Singleton Park (Swansea) events dropped from the main event, and Titanic Slipways in Belfast left following Land of Hope and Glory. All of them apparently went back to their own events independent of what occurred in London, which meant that they were no longer part of the overall UK event with the most rousing of British patriotic airs, including the National Anthem itself. This was massively disappointing because with the absence of those places in the latter part of the coverage, it was as though critical and indispensable pieces of the United Kingdom were grossly missing, and in a big way which made the country somewhat diminished compared to if those areas were included.

     The second half of the Last Night ought to be an event for the whole UK, with all events involving themselves in the same coverage to finish out this most British of occasions. Perhaps an exception could be made with regard to the section where Jerusalem is played (since it is more specifically an English anthem), but even then, you could find Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, and even Irish flags being flown to this song – often with respect. At any rate, something ought to be done to ensure that all Prom events are going to the same script for the latter half as an occasion for all of the United Kingdom to come together as one, and it is my hope that this event can help to make the “united” part real and truly meaningful, and show that there is much, much more to the UK than just "big bad (evil) Westminster."

     Nonetheless, this Proms experience at the movie theater was one which I thoroughly enjoyed and will greatly treasure. It was a truly fun and joyous time to celebrate Britain and to take part in a British event that is open to the world.