Crowd-pleasing confection delights audience’s taste but its flavours lack complexity
There’s always a danger when it comes to Last Night of the Proms concerts that the entire event will be consumed by pomp, circumstance and flag-waving. On this instance, some hope, albeit bracketed, was offered by the prefix ‘Not’; this was to be a concert of well-tempered patriotism, hosted by the always-entertaining Guy Noble. Conductor Tecwyn Evans, sopranos Lisa Gasteen and Dominique Fegan, and both the Brisbane Concert Choir and the Queensland Choir joined the Queensland Symphony Orchestra for the Sunday concert.
Certainly, the expected traditional Proms melodies were there: Jerusalem, Rule Brittania, Pomp and Circumstance; but in the lead up to the inevitable sing-along were a whole range of pieces, both celebratory and reflective. Fauré’s Requiem: Pie jesu, sung with exquisite delicacy and warmth by Dominique Fegan, was introduced by Noble as ‘happy sad’, rather than ‘sad sad’. Noble justified its inclusion by identifying that the concert was held at the end of the ANZAC Day weekend. Next came Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’ Songs of Sanctuary: Adiemus, a fairly bland offering to sit between the Fauré and Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’, sung by Lisa Gasteen. Noble took advantage in his introduction of the involvement of witches in Dido and Aeneas to riff on current events, playfully accusing witches of, amongst other things, giving former New South Wales premiere Barry O’Farrell a bottle of wine.
The problem, ultimately, was that the program failed to truly demonstrate the sheer brilliance and talent of the performers involved. Dominique Fegan, who did not return after the Fauré until she joined in for the finale, was sadly underused. Lisa Gasteen was given the best chance to shine—which she did, particularly in the two Sea Pictures by Edward Elgar—and seemed to be enjoying getting into the spirit of the event (Noble placed an extravagant crown on her head for her performance of Rule Britannia, and she returned onstage later with a pair of flags poking out the top of the back of her dress, much to the audience’s delight).
The QSO admirably kept time with Tecwyn Evans despite the audience’s increasingly speedy clapping in Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, and there were moments of beautiful accompaniment to the choirs in Jerusalem. There were two instances where the orchestra threatened to run away with the concert: the first, Tchaikovsky’s Marche slave, a piece commissioned by the Russian Musical Society in 1876 when the Russians were openly supporting Serbia in the Serbo-Turkish War, which is a rousing patriotic offering, allegedly inspiring profuse displays of emotional nationalism at its Moscow premiere in November 1876. Using a combination of Serbian folk songs and the national anthem of the late Russian Empire, ‘God save the Tsar’, the piece builds in intensity all the way through to its stirring finale for the orchestra. The second was the QSO’s performance of the Troika movement from Prokofiev’s suite for the 1934 film Lietenant Kijé; the dissonant Russian nationalistic strains were a counter to the more comfortable English melodies and harmonies that provided for the overriding majority of the concert. Both these offerings were frustratingly short; given that this was not the last night of the proms, it would have been nice to hear some more variation, at the expense of the British overload with which the concert ended.
That said, when the packed concert hall audience waved their flags and covered the stalls and stage in streamers to the encore of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, it became clear that this was what people were really here for. While the pieces were predominantly crowd-pleasing confection, the audience certainly left the hall having had a jolly good time.