Last Night of the Proms Tinged With Themes of Equality

Friday, September 06, 2013 - 02:00 PM

The Last Night of the Proms, the annual finale to the BBC Proms series at London’s Royal Albert Hall, is beloved for its raucous, flag-waving renditions of "Land of Hope and Glory," "Rule Britannia" and "God Save the Queen." But this year, some modern social themes provided a subtext to this otherwise uncomplicated celebration of British populism.

WQXR broadcast the concert on Saturday at 8 pm. Here are three things to listen for.


1. Will Marin Alsop speak on behalf of women conductors?

The Last Night will be presided over by Marin Alsop, who will become the first woman to conduct the event its 118-year history. Her arrival comes just after a controversy flared up in the British press this week: the young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko caused a stir by saying orchestras react better to men conductors and that women are a distraction (he later said his comments were misconstrued and issued a follow-up statement through the Oslo Philharmonic where he is the music director).  

Alsop, who is the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, has not commented on the controversy. But it is tradition for the conductor to give a speech from the stage, leaving some to wonder what she'll have to say.

"She is the most prominent woman conductor in the world at the moment and in many ways a role model and standard bearer for other women in the profession,” said Richard Morrison, classical music critic of the Times of London. “It will be interesting to see what Marin says about that and if she takes up the gauntlet on behalf of women conductors.”

Update 9/8: Marin Alsop's comments can be seen here:


2. American Music Joins English Patriotic Favorites

Along with the patriotic tunes, there's an American slant to this year's programming. Alsop was a student of Leonard Bernstein and in tribute she has programmed his Candide Overture and Chichester Psalms, the latter having been composed for Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England.

Morrison notes that different performers bring their own backgrounds to the concert, and it's become more international in recent times. "The Proms have been kind of modernized over the years," he said. "It isn’t quite the celebration of English nationalism that it used to be. It’s just an evening where people come and enjoy themselves and parade their own origins."

Below: Alsop conducts Bernstein

3. Joyce DiDonato Sings for Gay Rights

On Thursday, Joyce DiDonato, the American mezzo-soprano and the night's star soloist, revealed she will sing for those "silenced" over gay rights. After singing arias by Handel and Mozart, she will finish her portion of the night by singing "Over the Rainbow" in dedication to the gay community “whose voices are being silenced,” particularly in Russia.

DiDonato has long been identified with the song popularized by Judy Garland, but this will be the first time she has sung it in public since Russia passed anti-gay legislation earlier this year. Writing on her blog, DiDonato said:

We programmed ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ ages ago, but as the Russian law came into focus and I felt this impending sense of dread wash over me, I knew that I simply had to personally dedicate my performance on Saturday to all of those brave, valorous gay and lesbian souls whose voices are currently being silenced – either by family, friends, or by their government.

Acknowledging that the Proms has strict rules against political messages, DiDonato said she will not speak from the stage, however.

"It’s not as if she’s doing it in Russia, where the problem is," noted Morrison. "The UK is a pretty tolerant place for gays and everyone else. I think she’s using the global televised audience for this event to make a point. That's fair enough."

Watch that performance below:


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Comments [9]

kip waistell from Hereford

this is meant to be a British night emphasising OUR culture. So was every British conductor and female singer already booked? Having a female conductor or not is an irrelevance..what I object to is OUR Britishness being hijacked by foreigners, especially those with a "message".

Sep. 09 2013 01:05 PM

I'm on the fence on this whole topic. Both sides make good sense to me and I'm not certain how well I would like it if someone brought some topic such as this into a concert I attended. I suppose I'm like most people in that I'm fine with it if it's a political side I agree with, but if omeone were to begin speechmaking and stating a viewpoint I don't agree with, I'd be quite unhappy.

The Proms is a bit different however because they do have the tradition of a speech and that is expected by one and all. Marin Alsop is a favorite of mine not because of her gender but because of her commitment to American music and to the school children in Baltimore and her attempts to bring a form of La Sistema into that city. If you'd heard her conduct in 'Balmer' as I have, you'd know she has the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra 'tuned' as if it is a finely calibrated instrument.

Sep. 09 2013 12:32 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I'm interested in letting the music speak for itself rather than tub-thumping of any sort. I was struck by the variety of Joyce Di Donato's program and by the sympathetic accompaniment of her selections, even to the point of having the strings play with no vibrato during "Ombra mai fu". Nigel Kennedy's "The Lark Ascending" was appropriately ethereal, but I found starting a phrase with no vibrato and then playing with vibrato a mannerism that detracted from his overall artistry. I thought the musical "jokes" --- the short references to a bit of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and even Beethoven's Fifth Symphony during "Czardas" very inventive and altogether appropriate for this year's Last Night. I thought the "Meistersinger" prelude was a bit leaden, whereas the Bernstein pieces right on target. It's my feeling the male alto cut some notes short in "Chichester Psalms". I love the traditional "Jerusalem" by Parry and, of course, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1; and, though I'm not British, I get quite misty-eyed when Sir Henry Wood's bust is garlanded. Long live the Proms!

Sep. 08 2013 08:47 AM
Frank from UWS

The conductor always gives a speech at the Last Night of the Proms. It's a tradition there. For Alsop NOT to have acknowledged the fact that she's the first woman in 118 years of the Last Night would have been ridiculous.

There remains a lot of prejudice in classical music (and society at large as some of the comments here show) and it's important that people like Alsop call it out when it happens.

Sep. 08 2013 07:18 AM
Suzanne from Providence, RI

You can usually find the excerpts pop up on youtube in the next couple of days, Geoffrey. To the best of my knowledge, the event has never been simulcast in the US, although some friends of mine went to see it in a movie theater in Toronto this afternoon. There are DVDs available of some past years.

Speech/no speech didn't matter to me. A great musical event and one of those rare occasions when everyone in the audience is in tune with the spirit of the event. I've been lucky enough to attend this once as a child and three times since, and it's a joy. Grateful that WQXR broadcast it.

Sep. 07 2013 11:03 PM
Sandra Krystal from New York City

Music is a universal language and, therefore, nothing should mar its beauty and its appeal to all people. There was no need to make political statements about gender at tonight's festival. The gender of a conductor is irrelevant and Ms. Alsop's speech was sophomoric.

Sep. 07 2013 10:51 PM
Nick from Kent

I generally enjoy this once a year performance, but have to say that the BBC have made a serious mistake by permitting tonights conductor to turn it into a sexist forum with her persistent reference to gender. It was neither the place nor the time and she made an unforgivable error of judgement that should not be tolerated in todays society.

Sep. 07 2013 06:57 PM
Geoffrey from New York City

Is there any way for someone in the States to see this concert live online? I'm only able to hear it.

Sep. 07 2013 03:07 PM

This will prove to be exciting, with both of these talented women participating in the ooncert. And Ms DiDOnato ending with Tanti Afetti will guarantee the audience will be on its feet instantly. And two Americans women at that!

Sep. 06 2013 08:15 PM

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