Sir Andrew Davis must have felt very at home on the last night of the BBC Proms, and certainly gave every appearance of enjoying himself from the moment he arrived on the rostrum to conduct the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
The abundance of flags and streamers in the audience signalled something special was happening, with a subtler hint being that the ladies of the orchestra had ransacked their wardrobes to find evening dresses in colours of red, blue and even gold.
Like many items on the program Beethoven’s Egmont overture is a regular BBC Proms favourite. It made a strong start and was a good showpiece for all sections. So too was Elgar’s Sea Pictures, with its charm perhaps lying in its infinite variety. No Prom would be complete without a female singer with a commanding voice. On this occasion it was contralto Liane Keegan, who drew attention to herself from the outset with a rather extraordinary costume, sea green and with a jacket sporting one of the biggest frills ever seen on the Hamer Hall stage. The Pictures suited the secure tonal quality and dynamic range of her voice, although the orchestra was a little loud at times.
Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances are another popular choice for Prom concerts, satisfying the tests of musicality, rhythm and ease of listening for a restless crowd, there to enjoy the music but mainly to enjoy themselves. Davis chose the contrasts of the Dances in E minor, A flat and G minor. The first dance had a light touch with winds and lilting strings, with an unexpectedly delicate triangle. The second was more exciting, featuring a sudden change in tempo, the brass leading the winds in a slower melody. The third was all about rhythm and syncopation which engaged the whole orchestra right up to the stylish ending.
Next was a local contribution and very welcome it was: Percy Grainger’s In a Nutshell . Granger’s music is too often less appreciated because of its oddities, such as the names of its elements. In a Nutshell, for example, comprises parts named Arrival Platform Humlet, Gay but Wistful, Pastoral and The Gum-Suckers’ March. The score, which included a resonant piano, proved perfect Proms fare, with enough contrast for interest. For example, the Pastoral was a haunting piece including the concertmaster’s solo, with the final march having a brass band sound complemented by the full orchestra. It not only showed the orchestra’s strengths but also Davis’s reputation as a conductor holding the disparate elements together.
After that bow to local talent, it was time for the real stuff of the BBC Proms starting with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1, better known to Prom audiences as Land of Hope and Glory. Sir Andrew obliged with some overblown comments, such as that it was ” exquisite judgment and good taste” to have the Proms in Melbourne. The choir sported red white and blue sparkly stoles, and flags appeared besides streamers as the entire concert hall proved itself to be in good voice.
It was back to the rolling waves for Fantasia on British Sea Songs by Henry Atwood. The audience’s role was reduced to clapping but that allowed for appreciation of David Berlin’s lovely cello solo, and the contrast between brass instruments. From here it was all upwards as the audience made itself the centre of the action and sang its heart out. Keegan re-appeared to lead the singing in Arne’s Rule, Britannia!, her extraordinary costume inspired by the great queen and symbols of empire. Next was Parry’s magnificent anthem Jerusalem. With choir, orchestra and conductor giving their all the audience allowed itself to be part of the magic and sang not just loudly but like an extension of the MSO Chorus.
Once again the BBC Proms had built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. (It was of no importance that the “land” was far away in the colonies – musically nothing had to be sacrificed). A flurry of flags and streamers simply served to mark the fact that the Proms – all four of them – had been a resounding success, and every expectation was that the event would return.