Do you remember the Blue Peter theme tune? No, neither did I particularly until recently forced to watch Youtube footage of the Last Night at the Proms in order to illustrate my husband’s impassioned talk on why he loathes said Last Night. Raised in a household of Union Jack haters, I had managed to remain relatively shielded from this annual outrage until, thanks to Youtube, I learnt why it is that The Last Night of the Proms causes some UK citizens to literally bounce up and down and others to turn purple as their air passages constrict in horror.
Despite the actual line up of the [London] Proms including some wonderful performances of beautiful pieces from the orchestral repertoire, it is not Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra or Bruckner’s Mass in F minor that most think of when recalling The Proms but the jingoistic feast of bizarreness that marks its finale.
For those who, like myself until recently, remain innocent of this event – which plays out as being weirder than when Hunter S. Thompson drops into the third National D.A.’s Convention on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – I suggest they quickly Google it, if only so as to be able to fully appreciate the marked difference between strange men in sailor outfits honking clown horns whilst bobbing around Wack-a-Mole style, with the closing night of the Bristol Proms, as heralded this year by the Erebus Ensemble performing Tallis’ Spem in Allium.
Forty unaccompanied choral singers dressed in black, illuminated at times only by the lights on their song books and strategically placed in the round so as to re-create the original ‘surround sound’ quality intended by the composer. That, God bless Tom Morris and the Erebus’ conductor Tom Williams, is how to go out in style. More effortlessly classy than the decision to grow only white flowers, or to wear only hand-made Italian leather shoes. It was also an ending to this yearly event – now on year number 3 – that paradoxically sent the message that the Bristol Proms take their music seriously. ‘Paradoxically’ because the whole shtick of the South West version is to not take things seriously – to allow people to relax in the auditorium, clap when they like, have a pint with their Mozart and laugh at funny impressions of Tchaikovsky getting bitchy at Brahms (more of that later). The Bristol Proms cares about classical music in the same way that theatre-makers truly care about theatre when they start talking about ripping all of theatre apart and putting it back together again in a different order. The decision to close with – as Tom Williams phrased it – ‘everyone’s favourite choral piece’, was the kind of quietly confident decision only those who really appreciate great music (and expect their audience to also do so) could make. It was a bold choice of scheduling, a bold choice that ultimately said ‘we don’t need to put on a nationalistic panto to sell tickets, we know people will turn up simply for the quality of the music’.
And turn up they did – often in such numbers as to make the standing tickets area into the closest thing Classic FM ever got to witnessing a mosh pit. This wasn’t just the case for the closing night, but also throughout the week. The usual format of the weekdays was a schedule of multiple shows, starting with one of the ‘Six with Jonathan James’ discussions and/or a show in the studio, followed by the ‘main event’ in the theatre at 7:30 and, often, concluding with a Late Night show in the Paintshop – an area behind the main stage which had been loosely decorated with long strips of ribbons and turned into an impromptu bar. The scheduling made it such that audience members could attend all shows if they wished and often held back on the starting of one if another had been delayed by encores. However, given the divergent shows scheduled for the same night and the 7:30 theatre show always having the feel of completeness at its conclusion, the trick is probably to book shows on consecutive nights rather than try to pack lots in to one evening.
This opinion is formed from my experience of seeing the entire line up on Monday night, starting with a Jonathan James talk on Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 131, followed by a performance of the same piece by the Sacconi quartet in the studio. After this was Daniel Hope and friends performing and re-imagining the famous tiff between Brahms and Tchaikovsky – a sincerely stellar show with rapturous encore performance and standing ovation. It was solely down to the fact that Hope and the other performers were so brilliant that the next part of the evening, a solo fiddle show of English folk songs by Jon Boden seemed incongruous. This was through no fault of Boden’s, who not only played splendidly but also had some interesting things to say about the English folk tradition in opposition to the Irish or Scandinavian. He even bought a real life Morris dancer with him from Oxfordshire who duly danced and pranced with handkerchiefs aplenty. Which should have been enough to please many a young lady, only my (one-track) brain somehow couldn’t make the leap from dreaming of licking gelato by a Renaissance fountain courtesy of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence to men and Maypoles. The Boden performance would have really suited being scheduled for a Friday night, when the audience could have all got drunk and joined in the leaping and fiddling, maybe sparking the initiative to make next year’s May Day in Bristol as good as the one in Oxford sounds. Or at least put some hankies to good use.
Daniel Hope, as with several other performers including Pumeza Matshikiza and the Erebus Ensemble, was returning to the Bristol Proms having already wooed the audience in previous years. He is, according to Tom Morris, the ‘Patron Saint’ of the Bristol Proms and, as with Morris himself, is a most charming and affable character. The conceit of the evening’s performance was to re-enact, with the help of actor Jonathan McGuinness, the spat between the German Johannes Brahms and the Russian Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Rather like with Wimbledon 2Day, the BBC’s recent attempt at revamping Today at Wimbledon, the trajectory of this show went from favouring commentary over performance to triumphantly ending the second half with almost all performance and no talking. Within the script (written by Jonathan James, Tom Morris and Daniel Hope) the two composers were fairly equally represented, indeed if anyone seemed the more derogatory it was perhaps the Russian.
However, try as they might to hide it, within the music the emergent winner was clear from an early stage. Hearing these two composers put head-to-head in this setting confirmed what I personally already felt towards them. Brahms, whenever I hear it, is always perfectly nice. Or ‘fine’. Or even ‘calming’. Whatever word one wants to use to suggest that something is genuinely inoffensive and even, at times, very pleasant to hear. But Tchaikovsky makes the world stop. I actually started my foray into classical music solely because I was in love, and still am, with the music of Swan Lake. If people have enough time to stick around, I’d like it played in its entirety at my funeral. Only I wouldn’t, because then I wouldn’t actually get the joy of hearing it. Maybe instead I would like Heaven to be sitting on a cloud listening to the suites over and over.
For the sake of Monday night’s performance, Hope had selected several of his favourite performers from the world’s best orchestras to play Souvenir de Florence and Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Opus 111. Everyone was someone Hope had previously played with and patently had a strong connection with, yet during the Brahms everything ran smoothly, serenely and with perfect good grace (fine) whereas in the Tchaikovsky suddenly the lights went on. Hope himself was basically bounding out of his own seat, beads of sweat forming excitedly on his brow, and between the musicians there were smiles, half-winks and such unremitting joy emanating from them that was impossible to miss. The schedule of the evening, which had the two pieces being performed in alternating movements, rather than in their entirety back-to-back, was also naturally biased towards Souvenir de Florence, being as the finale of the evening was the finale of this rather than Brahms.
Perhaps the choice of repertoire was also always going to favour Tchaikovsky, because Souvenir de Florence has at its heart an easy, languorous-but-ecstatic happiness. It is a piece about being on holiday, after all. And in the wonderful surrounds of a beautiful Italian city, under sun-kissed architecture with ebullient fountains dappling down on stone. Listen to Souvenir de Florence and think of Lucy Honeychurch illuminated in a Florentine window, finally with George and clothed in a rather transparent Edwardian blouse thanks to James Ivory’s costumer. It’s hard to go from that to an English fiddle without the brain exploding.
It is always wonderful to witness a performer – be it performing music, sports or art – take such obvious joy in what they are doing. Aside from his amiable banter and foppish ability to wear a suit with élan, what actually makes Daniel Hope the Patron Saint of Bristol Proms is his infectious delight, his childish inability not to stop himself from dancing along and the way you can almost see the endorphins whooshing through his body as the music rushes, twirls, jumps.
The other performer, appearing on Tuesday night, who is a similar joy to watch – albeit for different reasons – was Pumeza Matshikiza. The South African soprano closed Bristol Proms last year with a majestic performance as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a candle-lit show that, nice as Tallis was, remains the season finale to beat. This year Pumeza’s show went down a similar formatting road to many of the others programmed in that is was a mixture of music and mini-lecture. On this occasion, Matshikiza was ‘in conversation’ with conductor and composer Charles Hazelwood, who she had worked with at an early stage in her career.
Hazelwood proves to be a suitably slick and entertaining host, but it is the contained beauty of Matshikiza, both when she sings and reads poetry, that consistently steals the show. Dressed as though to demonstrate exactly why Coco Chanel made monochrome so famous and accented with shimmer in a fashion reserved solely for those on stage, Matshikiza belies her feminine appearance by providing subtly disruptive answers to Hazelwood’s questions. In the best tradition of feminists (and I can say that as, stood here reading Maya Angelou poetry to the crowd, it is pretty clear where Matshikiza stands on these issues), she refuses to provide the easy answers, and not just on the subjects of genders and race, but in a wider sense too.
When Hazelwood asks her about religion she tells the story of how her faith in organized religion was lost after her father became suddenly ill in church. Instead of taking him to the hospital immediately, the congregation was instructed to give him holy water to drink. By the time he was taken to hospital hours later, it was too late to do anything and he died, the doctors stating that they could have done something if only he had arrived earlier. This is the sort of refreshingly anti-talk show answer people should be less afraid of employing in all situations. Particularly where women are concerned, there is a premium placed on not saying things that will make the listener uncomfortable. It’s a blessing to see someone take a different approach.
But we are, of course, ultimately here for the music and, like with so much of the Bristol Proms, the evening does not remotely fail on delivering. Although considered a soprano, Matshikiza’s voice has a resonance and depth to it more commonly found – if anywhere – in mezzo-sopranos. Essentially she has what Jonathan James accurately described as an “African warmth” to her singing which prevents her from straying anywhere close to the shriek-y end of the soprano repertoire and has the added benefit of making the lyrics she is singing much clearer. Her rendition of Puccini’s Un bel dí Vedremo from Madame Butterfly makes what has become almost the cliché of opera uniquely heartbreaking once again.
The Bristol Proms is establishing a pattern of re-inviting its favourite stars each year and I sincerely hope Tom Morris is already drafting his invite to Pumeza Matshikiza for 2016 and beyond.