The last night of this year’s balls marked a return to something that resembles its usual form: good humor, patriotism and chauvinism, flags, balloons and streamers. However, it was also a last night during which the pandemic made its presence very felt. There were no Proms in the park, although pre-recorded contributions were transmitted from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Social distancing meant the BBC’s 18 singers were joined in the second half by 19 members of the BBC Symphony Chorus – an unspoken reminder that even though a crowded and largely unmasked audience can bellow their heads in Land of Hope and Glory, full choirs still remain cautiously inhibited.
This year’s Promenaders charities, recognized in conductor Sakari Oramo’s speech, include Help Musicians’ Covid 19 hardship fund, a crucial source of help for so many musicians now struggling to survive. The elephant in the room, meanwhile, was Brexit yet again, although many people in the auditorium wore EU hats or carried EU flags, the latter distributed by activists at outside the hall to protest the restriction on freedom of movement which has had such a catastrophic impact on the lives of artists.
Musically, there was a lot to enjoy. The now traditional new work was Mother, by Iranian-born Gity Razaz, an engaging piece about climate change, placed on an axis somewhere between Sibelius and Copland. The centenarians of Ruth Gipps and Malcolm Arnold this year have been marked by the latter’s appealing variations on a theme of the former. A striking new arrangement by Jonathan Manners of Barber’s Adagio for choir and orchestra was a poignant reminder that the concert took place 20 years to the day after 9/11. The Juba Dance from Florence Price’s First Symphony and Ravel’s Rigaudon from Couperin’s Tomb sounded exquisite and exhilarating, although the two excerpts seemed a bit removed from the full works.
Tenor Stuart Skelton and accordionist Ksenija Sidorova were the soloists of the evening. Skelton took a little while to warm up, and there were a few moments of unusual effort in Wagner’s Meistersinger Prize song. He took a serious form in the second half, however, sporting a series of extraordinary outfits, from the frock coat to cricket flannels (for Rule Britannia) to sequins (for I Still Call Australia Home). Sidorova, who joined him for the tango Sur of Aníbal Troilo, also gave us a suave and very sensual Piazzolla. Oramo, meanwhile, has long been an expert in shaping and pacing the episodic programs of Last Night, and there was beautifully focused playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, especially in Arnold and Ravel.