Last Night of the Proms Tinged With Themes of Equality

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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: