Marin Alsop leads historic Last Night of the Proms

LONDON -- The Last Night of the Proms became a First Night for Women on Saturday when Marin Alsop walked onto the stage of the massive and festively adorned Royal Albert Hall and made a bit of history in this history-drenched country.

“A lot has been made of me being the first woman to conduct the Last Night,” Alsop told the crowd of about 6,000 inside the hall and masses more watching on giant screens in Hyde Park and locations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

She was cut off by a storm of cheers and applause before continuing: “I’m incredibly honored and proud, but I have to say it’s amazing that there can still be a first for women in 2013.”

That’s the message that Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra, kept telling the British press in the days leading up to what is one of the most popular annual events on the culture calendar here.

But the press just kept on driving that point, so Alsop used the occasion to remind everyone that there should, and could, be a lot more women in her field.

In a remarkable case of bad timing, Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, who leads the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, declared last week that orchestras play better for a man. Without mentioning his name, Alsop got in a sly dig at his attitude in her podium speech at the Proms, before urging young girls everywhere to follow their passions.

The whole issue -- the host of the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show called the first-woman focus “a ridiculous row” when he did a morning-after session with Alsop on his Sunday television show -- probably took up too much oxygen.

(Among snarky post-concert comments posted on one British newspaper’s Web site: “It was disgraceful for this woman to use her podium to stage an outburst of special pleading for women.”)

Still, it is certainly worth reminding people that the classical music world is no more immune to sexism than any other. Alsop has done more than anyone to counter that lingering problem, and she has had particular success in Britain.

She led the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra before her Baltimore appointment, and she is not a stranger to the Proms, having led her Brazilian orchestra there last summer and, in a much-praised performance of the Brahms Requiem, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment last month.

The conductor acknowledged her fond, longtime connection to British musicians and audiences in her Proms remarks. She also got in a nice plug for “my wonderful Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,” and used the occasion to advocate for education, urging that music and the arts be “front and center,” not “pushed to the sidelines.”

But the Last Night is not about speeches, although each conductor is expected to make one near the end  (Alsop’s concise, wry address seemed to go over well). It’s about a rousing good time with a mix of classical and popular repertoire, and it attracts a vociferous crowd of 5,000-plus, attired in everything from T's to tuxes, and festooned with any number of variations on the Union Jack. These days, lots of other national flags and emblems dot the hall; people come in from many countries to get in on Last Night fun.

The Proms -- nickname for the summer Promenade Concerts founded by Sir Henry Wood in 1895, and held in Albert Hall since the 1940s -- is an extraordinary series that generates an extraordinary response.

This summer’s lineup of 75 concerts was said to be the most successful ever, with 57 sell-outs.
There was a parade of the world’s great solo artists and orchestras, including Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle in concert with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin and top-notch casts. I heard that via Internet streaming.

And the Vienna Philharmonic, sounding as resplendent as ever, gave a performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 with the masterful Lorin Maazel conducting on the penultimate night of the Proms. I heard that one in person Friday and was quite transported, both by the artistry onstage and the rapt attention of the audience (I swear I don’t remember a single cough during the nearly 90-minute symphony).

The unique thing about the Proms is that the center section of the circular hall is filled with standees, as many as 900 (several hundred more standees are perched in what seems to be a dizzyingly high ring near the ceiling).

The “Prommers” on the floor can be wildly playful during the Last Night. They bob in unison for marches; they wave flags at will (in a Monty Python-worthy touch, someone occasionally hoisted a gigantic inflated banana on Saturday). They also decorated the conductor's podium during the intermission with pink balloons and streamers; I couldn't make it out from where I was sitting, but I learned later that one balloon bore the message "It's a girl." 

These folks never get in the way of the music-making (unlike some folks in the seats -- naturally,  with my luck, I had to be stuck with persistent talkers next to me). They are there to drink in the music, and they quaffed eagerly at this Last Night concert by the excellent BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

The zigzag program packed in a whole lot of diversity. The 2013 musical anniversaries were properly observed -- Verdi and Wagner (200th birthday) with some greatest hits; Britten (100th) with a wonderfully bracing overture for chorus and orchestra “The Building of the House.”

Appropriately, under the circumstances, the curtain-raiser was by a woman composer, Anna Clyne, whose "Masquerade" impressed with its slithery strings and bright percussion.

Alsop found room to honor her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Her right hand still bandaged after a fall this summer that injured her wrist, the conductor led a sensitive and affecting account of the “Chichester Psalms” that featured tender solo work by countertenor Iestyn Davies and rich-toned singing from the chorus.  Selections from “Candide” also hit the spot. (Alexander Bernstein, the composer's son, rushed backstage after the concert to heap praise on Alsop's account of the Psalms.)

Eccentric British violinist Nigel Kennedy delivered a sweet  performance of Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” and a self-indulgent romp through his arrangement of Vittorio Monti’s “Csardas.”

Kennedy seems to have turned into a parody, mugging uncontrollably, stomping, shouting,  fist-bumping anyone in sight. It’s a little too manic and silly; a little worrisome, too. But he still has considerable fiddle chops, and the crowd ate it all up.

Alsop was a good sport (I wondered if she would have rather slugged the violinist than return one more fist-bump), and managed to keep the orchestra together through the whole unpredictable ride. In the guest-artist-thanking portion of her Proms speech, Alsop said: “And for whom I have no adjective, Nigel Kennedy.”

The guest star who really owned the hall Saturday night was mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. The American singer let loose with a gorgeous, velvety sound from the get-go in a Massenet aria and delivered familiar pieces by Handel and Rossini with subtle, exquisite phrasing.

The Kansas-born DiDonato turned the cavernous venue into the most intimate of spaces with a disarmingly understated “Over the Rainbow” (a rainbow flag magically appeared among the sea of banners unfurled by Prommers afterward).

UPDATE: I learned later that the singer, taking particular note of the recent ant-gay legislation in Russia, had written on her blog a couple days before the concert that she would be dedicatating her performance of that song to "all of those brave, valorous gay and lesbian souls whose voices are currently being silenced – either by family, friends, or by their government."

In a from-the-ridiculous-to-the-sublime moment, she followed Kennedy’s “Csardas” with a sweet “Danny Boy” and led a quite moving sing-along of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

During the traditional patriotic close of the Last Night, the mezzo was back with more stellar coloratura for the Malcolm Sargent arrangement of “Rule, Britannia” (DiDonato added a regal cape at that point to her sparkly gown).

Alsop had the orchestra tearing into the fast-paced portions of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 with great flourish, but gave the chorus plenty of breathing room for the famous big tune that became the anthem “Land of Hope and Glory” and is invariably sung at Last Night concerts with enormous fervor. (Americans know it as a wordless, stately graduation theme.)

No Last Night would be complete without "Jerusalem," the stirring hymn by Hubert Parry with words by William Blake. You've got to love a patriotic piece that works in the words "dark Satanic mills" and suggests that Jesus (on his way to America to plant some things for Joseph Smith?) stopped by "England's green and pleasant land."

Whatever one makes of the sentiments, the melody is so eloquently expressive that this piece -- something of an alternative national anthem, the British equivalent to "America the Beautiful" -- just grabs hold and stirs deeply, as it did Saurday night.

To close, as always, came the traditional national anthem, here in Britten’s inspired arrangement that has the choir start quietly and solemnly before building vocal and orchestral steam. Once the thousands in the hall chimed in with “God Save the Queen,” it was enough to make even a proud American a willing subject for the night.

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