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 www.verinhaottoni.com).
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
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