Last Night of the Proms with Wellington Orchestra

Vector Wellington Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir conducted by Marc Taddei with Helen Medlyn (mezzo soprano) and Donald Nicolson (organ)

Wellington Town Hall, Saturday 22 August 2009

Wellington’s experience suggests that there’s no such thing as the Last Night of the Proms. The big audiences – this one was sold out – justifies the Wellington Orchestra’s decision to stick with a good thing, or at least a rewarding thing, so the adjective ‘last’ has to be understood as a relative term. One wonders how Wellington would turn out if another of the scores of nights at the Proms were presented; they have long been the way to get an assured audience to listen to unfamiliar or new music, which would be otherwise difficult to sell to the British public.

The fact is of course that, although presented in a music venue, by a symphony orchestra and other musicians, the event is not really about music. It’s about a ritual: coloured balloons, silly hats, waving Union Jacks (albeit with little gusto), standing up and making a noise some of which doubles as singing.

Marc Taddei is the ideal front-man, just a little larger than life, unabashed by the need to act the fool with unembarrassed conviction.

Though the pattern and perhaps the secret of its longevity is sameness and familiarity, there is usually at least one gesture towards something different, like a New Zealand piece. This time they got it out of the way quickly: David Hamilton’s Zarya (Russian – Dawn), which had marked an event in space exploration; it was a stagy fanfare with dominant brass and organ that sounded pseudo-festive, as if the composer was striving to create something brilliant, momentous but not quite feeling it in his bones.

That out of the way, the normal fare follows. Handel’s Zadok the Priest, had a strangely unimpressive performance. The long introduction by strings that should move with increasing excitement through the splendid sequence of harmonies over a steady rhythm, was seriously underpowered, mainly by the small string numbers, and matters only somewhat recovered with the choir’s more convincing though hardly overwhelming arrival.

Is there any connection between these signs of orchestral weakness and the unexplained resignation of the highly successful General Manager Christine Pearce?

Helen Medlyn threw herself into the spirit of the show from the beginning, even though the two Handel arias were hardly festive; as she herself remarked, they were both sad (and neither of them was in English). The first, the famous ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo, the second, the very unfamiliar ‘Furibondo spira il vento’ from Partenope which no one would have heard of a few years ago; it’s one of the most recently unearthed of his operas. Helen gave them her best, florid passages and all, but the orchestra hardly lent her lustrous or energized support.

I was glad that she demonstrated to an audience, many of whom were probably unfamiliar with a singer without a microphone, that a real voice can fill the hall perfectly well. When it came to the Noel Coward songs in the second half however, she succumbed, though Coward would probably have been horrified. Microphones did not come into use for musical comedy and light opera till the 50s, and of course it’s been downhill since then.

But at least she demonstrated how the device could be used with subtlety and to expressive effect.

Her utterly over-the-top performance of the A Bar on the Piccolo Marina was one of the best things in the evening (a memorable demonstration of ‘slipping into something loose’; see the lyrics –

The Polovstian Dances from Prince Igor followed, with the welcome presence of the choir (I remember hearing them played by orchestra only on radio many times in my youth without realising that they were ‘choral’ dances). Again, it was the choir that gave them the colour and energy they need so much.

When the strings again sounded uninvolved at the start of Walton’s Crown Imperial March I wondered whether it was the position of my seat that was affecting my experience; I don’t think so.

The second half is the time for flags and noise, and music inherited from an age of jingoism and xenophobia. First was Eric Coates’s Dambuster’s March, celebrating one of the much vaunted but more useless exploits of the Second World War, which succeeded in drowning hundreds of civilians but made no dent in Germany’s arms production capacity; then Elgar’s first Pomp and Circumstance March with its cringe-making words, and Rule Britannia, ironical in an age when the country has difficulty even ruling itself.

However, the audience made Marc Taddei’s job easy by responding spiritedly, singing along, regardless. And Donald Nicolson’s brilliant organ flourishes contributed greatly.

As for Henry Wood’s classic, Fantasia on British Sea Songs, as usual, it was much abbreviated, ending with the hornpipe, Jack’s the Lad (fifth of the nine parts): it accelerated too early, a phenomenon known in other contexts as ‘premature ….’, and so its excitement was compromised. There were good moments: Brenton Veitch’s cello solo offered a lovely calming phase; and a happy clarinet solo by Moira Hurst stood out. Last year the London Proms dropped the Sea Songs: what of the future?

The concert came to and end with the audience on its feet for the most part, in Rule Britannia, ‘No place like home’, ‘Hine e hine’ and ‘Auld lang syne’.

Even though this formula remains popular, and it does expose people to a real orchestral experience, I do wish we got some different music, such as is heard at Vienna’s New Year Concert or Berlin’s Waldbühnen concerts.