The Last Night at the Proms

I had a GREAT time this summer at the Proms. People were fun and friendly. I think the English have perfected the art of queuing. Standing and waiting can be so boring but sometimes it can be a real show. While in the queue at the Proms they dance, they play cards; they make friends and really enjoy themselves. On the Last Night of the Proms “The Man in Red”, his real name is Richard, was wearing a waistcoat with a musical motif and a huge pointed hat in red and black. It was definitely the most eye-catching costume of the evening. (You can see it in the photos that I took of him Richard is an engineer in Cambridge, but I think he spends more time in his research in acquiring the best eye-catching clothing. He is eccentric and so very sweet.

On the last day most of the woman were in long dresses and the men in evening attire. Some were wearing socks and ties in musical motif. Some of the women were wearing tiaras, so I asked one of them, “What is your title?” She said, “I am Queen of the Proms. The others, of course, are only princesses.” I bought a huge blue hat for the occasion but I could not wear it because the people behind me would not have been able to see the performance.

I met a man who was studying Italian in Perugia and he spoke to me in Italian about the time he had been in Italy and seen La Callas, Beniamino Gigli and many others. Another man I met, who fought in the war in the Pacific, still comes to the Proms by bicycle and he has the most interesting stories to tell. My neighbour John and his wife that live on the same floor as me, used to speak to me in Portuguese and I have seen them many times at the Proms and the ROH. I have become a little concerned about them. I think they must have become deaf and blind – because they don’t seem to see me anymore! I must be invisible. John occasionally manages to answer my ‘hello’ with a GRRRRRRR! Poor thing, old age is showing as well as lack of education. I hope I never arrive at this stage of misery in life. They are so very snooty.

Back to the Proms, I really enjoyed the Old Testament theme this year because it gave me the opportunity to see great orchestras with huge choruses. St. Matthew Passion is something that I will never forget. I sat near Peter Hall and his family, including a little girl. They left during the interval, I presume the little girl did not enjoy it as much as I did. Sheila Hancock was also nearby. The hall was very full and the stage fuller than ever with the English Concert Orchestra. Trevor Pinnock founded the Orchestra in 1973. It was Pinnock’s last performance of his 30-year career with the English Concert Orchestra. Next year the directorship will go to Andrew Manze. The choir of the English Concert Orchestra was founded in 1983. James Wood founded the New London Chamber Choir in 1981. The Boy and Girl Choristers of the Southward Cathedral and 19 soloist, two sopranos and two altos, all took part in the St Matthew Passion - everyone excelled in their devotion to this drama and Bach’s brilliance of the Representation of Christ’s Passion.

This is Bach’s grandest and greatest work; it is taken from 26 and 27 of St. Matthew’s Gospel. It’s sung in a highly expressive recitative by a tenor Evangelist. A bass sings the role of Christ accompanied by a large chorus. All this is thanks to the composer’s deep religious faith that reaches its apogee in the choruses. Hearing this three-hour work of music with cumulative power, was a delightful way to spend my Sunday afternoon. When I left, I felt very religious and like a good person. With all the audience joined in the reading, there was an overwhelming sense of community.

Johann Sebasian Bach (1685-1750) was born in a small town called Elisenach. With his sons following in his footsteps, this family covered over a century of music. He had many children from his first wife, who was his second cousin Barbara Bach. She was lucky to not have to change her surname. My great book on music describes this masterpiece as:
“The poignancy and grandeur of the great St Matthew Passion of 1730 were hardly to be surpassed by Bach himself. From the majestic and disturbing opening chorus the hearer is aware that he is involved in a work of sublime tragedy and in the ordering of the various arias, choruses and chorales which together make up this mighty composition. Bach reveals himself not only as a great musician but also a great dramatic poet. As a unified work of art, the St. Matthew Passion is excelled not even by the awe-inspiring Mass in B Minor. The Kyrie and Gloria of this work had been written in 1733 to mourn the passing of the Saxon elector and to greet the accession of his successor, the dimensions of the work precluded its use in the liturgy whether of the Reformed or of the Catholic Church. The music abounds in moments of sublimity and remote grandeur, and the composer’s mature and confident mastery of counterpoint is apparent throughout.”

I went to another concert of Bach but this time in a more simple form with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (founded in 1981). It had 50 musicians from 15 countries with the Artistic Advisor Claudio Abbado. They have been on tour this summer in Edinburgh, Santader and other European cities. The conductor was Andras Schiff, better known as a solo pianist that has now become a conductor. Schiff directs from the piano rather than the harpsichord. He was born in Budapest in 1953. After Bach’s Suite No 3 in D Major and Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto came a piece by Janacek: Capricio for Piano (for the left hand on the piano and wind instruments, which left the right hand free to direct). This piece was written in 1926 for the Czech pianist, Otakar Hollmann, that lost his right hand in the World War I. Schiff closed the night with Haydn’s Symphony No 88 in G Major. Haydn is another of Schiff’s specialities, but the composer that received the most media coverage here in London was Esa-Pekka Salonen. I saw an interview on BBC with him speaking from his native Finland. He is very charming with a young, boyish handsome face. He was born in 1958 in Helsinki. In the 70’s he studied composition at the Sibelius Academy. He considered himself primarily a composer, becoming a composing conductor. Since 1992, he has been the Chief Conductor of the LA Philharmonic and in October 2003 he will open the season at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall. It is not a Mickey Mouse performance so the unfounded rumours that the stage will have two giant Mickey Mouse ears turned on side is untrue!! It took 15 years in construction and cost £200 million. The architect was Frank Gehry, who also designed the famous steel Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Before Salonen came to the London Proms he conducted for two nights at the Edinburgh Festival. He jabbed himself in the head with his baton while conducting. The two songs that were conducted were, Sibelius’ Symphony No 7 and a work by Mahler.

While at the Proms Salonen conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 in D Minor, it reminded me of George Bush and Tony Blair, particularly when the chorus sang, “O joy, glorious spark of the gods, be embraced, ye millions! This kiss to all the world! Brothers, there above the firmament a loving Father surely dwells! Do you fall prostrate, ye millions? Do you divine your Creator, world? Seek Him beyond the firmament. He surely dwells beyond the stars! O joy, glorious spark of the gods…Be embraced, ye millions!” I have heard that Bush and Blair both have a Bible at their bedsides, but if they would listen to the words of this music maybe it would change their hearts about going to war.

The “Stone Cold Man” and some of the other Promenaders that I talked to didn’t like the conducting very much. As always, I will admit that I am not an expert, but I felt very involved with the music.

Another concert was conducted by James Levine – they call him Jimmy – he has been the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera since 1976. “The story of the Metropolitan as it moves into its second century will likely be in large part the story of the mid-life of James Levine.” Levine was in his forties when he started at the Metropolitan. His debut in Bayreuth was in 1982 conducting Parsifal. Levine came to the Proms with Munich Philharmonic and Alfred Brendel on piano. He played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20 in D Minor. Levine is known as “The Met’s Maestro”. He said, “ …and of the great mysteries on this planet is the universal communication of music, its ability to communicate moods and feelings with a density and immediacy that amounts to an electric charge. A good example of this is a poem which one might have known since childhood. If one learns a musical setting for it – say Schubert’s settings of Goethe poems or Britten’s Serenade (for tenor, horn and strings) – one can never think of the poem without its musical setting, can one? It communicates the essence, the deepest meaning of the poem far more deeply than the words it was written in. In fact, I doubt that I, or any of us musicians, fully understand the mystery of the communication of music, of how notation, those black ink spots, managed to transcend the obstacle of language barriers, which is why people all over the world are listening in full concert halls and opera houses to St. Matthew Passion, to Erocica symphonies, to Figaros and Othellos. And I always wonder whether all the great composers, Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and Verdi had any idea that one, two hundred years after their death, the music they left behind them would have lost none its power to communicate with the people of the world…” How beautifully stated!!

The atmosphere of the last night was enchanting as the conductor, Leonard Slatkin, closed his speech. We all said to each other “See you next year on 18 July 2003!” But I have seen most of them at Covent Garden, since then. I ran into “The Best Dressed Man” there, inside the ticket office. I asked, “What are you doing here?” “This is my REAL habitat!” he said. I left thinking that maybe he lives at the Royal Opera House (like the ghost of the Phantom of the Opera.)

Gosh, what a wonderful way of celebrating music from all over the world. It was an extraordinary summer festival!!


Verinha Ottoni


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