September 8th, 2006


For anyone watching (or attending) the Last Night of the Proms tomorrow ...

Provided I can get it past the RAH stewards - and there seems no reason why not - I shall be flying the flag of Northumberland tomorrow evening, so you should be able to find me easily amidst all the Union Flags and St George's Crosses. As I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, sometime before the Great Local Government Reorganisation of 1974, I think I can claim to be patriotic, though if anyone would rather describe me as a "militant Northern nationalist", I shall have to live with that.

Haven't decided what time to get there - the queue will have started already, but as I'm not promming tonight and shan't be at the 10:00 roll-call, I shall inevitably be a bit further back, but I think I'll probably arrive around lunch time or early afternoon. As a ticket holder, entry is guaranteed up to 19:20, but I don't want to be right at the back of the arena. Now where does "the bloke with the fog-horn" stand? I don't want to be next to him all night!
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Prom 70 was by far the best of the season so far (and therefore, musically at least, almost certainly the best full stop). For once the queue was busy; I had the misfortune to join it at the bottom of the steps, where you are subjected to the hot air expelled from the Royal Albert Hall's air conditioning. It was certainly packed inside, and I am told that people were turned away (which is actually a pretty rare occurrence).

Why was it so popular? Undoubtedly, it was the combination of conductor Bernard Haitink and Gustav Mahler, composer (as Tom Lehrer put it) of "Das Lied Von Der Erde and Other Light Classics". The single work on the programme was his Symphony No 2 (Resurrection). Perhaps it would have been preferable to give Haitink a guest orchestra, such as the Concertgebouw, but he had the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which some people feel is not quite top-notch. Nevertheless, I really think they raised their game; it's often said (and probably true enough) that professional orchestras can play many pieces more-or-less without a conductor, but on this occasion it was clear that Haitink added so much to the performance, a modest but assured presence on the podium.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of standing with two people both significantly taller than me in my line of sight to the conductor; at 5'11" this does not happen too often, but perhaps I understand obnoxious_muso's problem here a little better now.

The opening Todtenfeier was intense, a study in anguish and grief or a journey to the Underworld. The second and third movements depict remembrances, then the solace of Urlicht leading to the massive finale and choral Aufersteh'n. Perhaps the final movement was a tad slow, but it worked nonetheless. It was certainly an appropriate moment for Sir John Drummond to go. Haitink himself, at 75, looked exhausted, yet the applause seemed to rejuvenate him after a few moments.


The Proms have been somewhat lopsided this year in their programming, with a lot of the visiting orchestras and "big names" in the last two or three weeks. I'm sure it's no coincidence that this ties in with their coverage on BBC4, though that turns out to be a bit more selective than you might have imagined. So, two Proms in a row again, and two sell-outs again. With my hair hinting at grey in one or two places, I find it immensely satisfying to my ego to be addressed as "young man", even if it is by some of the undeniably elder Promenaders. According to this 1972 Guardian article, you are eccentric if you're promming and over 30, so I'm well qualified on that score.

The first half, which was probably the crowd puller, was Joshua Bell playing Bruch's Violin Concerto No 1, and it was pleasant enough. Obviously feeling that we had not had enough Corigliano last year, or perhaps looking to boost his CD sales, Bell gave an encore of a further passage from The Red Violin.

It was the second half that attracted me to this concert, Shostakovich's Symphony No 10. Arguably the greatest of his symphonies, this is the work that he released following Stalin's death, and it's considered to represent his struggles with the not-so-Dear Leader. Daniele Gatti conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with care, taking the second movement in particular at a truly breakneck pace. I've heard one person argue that the ending is not triumphant, and the programme notes hinted the same, but I simply can't agree. It may not be a conventional triumph, but in Shostakovich's sardonic style, in its final bars, the "D-S-C-H" theme really trounces the "Stalin" theme, no question. It was a fair performance, but after Wednesday's Prom it was almost inevitable that this would be a climb-down, and flicking through my folder of concert programmes I have found the best performance of this work I've ever attended: it was in 1989 at Newcastle City Hall, with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky - names to conjure with indeed.