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MSO: Last Night at the Proms

by Glenn Riddle

The BBC Promenade Concerts, known affectionately as “the Proms” are an annual two-month long summer celebration of Classical music held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Who better to steer the Melbourne Symphony and associated artists through a program that seeks to reproduce the spirit of the celebrated Last Night of the Proms than Great Brit Sir Andrew Davis? An RAH Prom veteran, he is not only sufficiently youthful of spirit, he is also imbued with that infectious sense of quirky English-ness that is guaranteed to make this most British of British traditions a success in this distant former colony.

The evening began with Usain-Bolt-like velocity as the MSO tore through the opening of Berlioz’ Overture Le Corsaire with dazzling unanimity of purpose. Expansive brass fanfares were to follow and the night was off to a thrilling, albeit very French, start.

Frederick Delius’s A Song of Summer followed – a work from the blind composer’s final years, written with help of his amanuensis Eric Fenby. Here Sir Andrew elicited a wonderfully sustained elegiac lyricism from the strings, thereafter complemented by a succession of exquisitely dove-tailed wood-wind solos and an almost Grainger-esque (more of him later) brass choir. With appropriate poignancy, Sir Andrew dedicated this performance to the victims of the recent London terror attack.

Then came John Ireland’s infrequently-heard Piano Concerto with London-based Australian pianist Piers Lane as guest soloist. Lane joined in the festive atmosphere wearing his trademark brightly-coloured socks, complementing the bright hues of the dresses of many in the orchestra. The opening movement’s soaring melodies were no doubt the inspiration for Norman Lebrecht’s description of this concerto as being the English “Rach 2”, though jazz tints also enlivened the harmonies and rhythms. Here Lane’s glittering, agile technique was fully on display. Yet it was the sumptuously-toned solos in the second movement that proved to be the highlight of the concerto, Lane revelling in the ravishing harmonies, in what was a suitably spacious, enchantingly nuanced reading. The richness and variety of Lane’s tonal palette was abundantly on display here. Finely-wrought flute, violin, oboe and horn solos ensued, leading straight into the animated finale where Lane’s abundant, yet never strained, virtuosity served Ireland well. The concluding moments of the concerto almost remind one of the closing pages of Prokofiev’s supremely virtuosic Third Piano Concerto. On the whole, Lane proved to be a most persuasive advocate for this substantial and too-little performed work, initially premiered at a London Prom concert in 1930, but last presented by the MSO in 1949!

Lane then teamed with Davis and the MSO to present a delightfully sprightly, fleet-fingered and witty encore of one-hit wonder Henry Litolff’s Scherzo in D minor (from the Concerto-Symphonique No 4). London-born Litolff was a direct contemporary of Franz Liszt and was the dedicatee of the Hungarian maestro’s First Piano Concerto, and while the Scherzo may not rival the Liszt in inventiveness, it provided a worthy light-hearted fillip to the Ireland.

After interval, with the choir stalls festooned with British and Australian flags, Sir Andrew led a musically detailed account of William Walton’s colourfully orchestrated Façade. With well-known tunes tripping over themselves vying for attention, this was a deft reading, high on humour and befitting the occasion.

Thereafter came a heart-rending reading of Percy Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry. Though born in Melbourne, Grainger was an avid and celebrated collector and arranger of folk songs from various parts of Britain, Norway, Denmark and elsewhere. Grainger always felt that his greatest compositional gift lay in providing interesting counter-melodies to these now thankfully preserved folk tunes. Such secondary melodies, heard in counterpoint against the principal tune, enrich and lend a certain piquancy to the otherwise simple, implied harmonies of the original melodies. Eliciting a ravishing tone from the strings, Davis judiciously balanced the various competing melodic and counter-melodic strands, delicately highlighting Grainger’s harmonic twists and turns.

Then came the bizarrerie that is Grainger’s orchestral arrangement of the English Morris Dance tune Country Gardens. Like almost all of Grainger’s works, it exists in numerous formats – for piano solo, piano duet, two pianos, recorder duo (!) wind band and in this quite extraordinary arrangement that Grainger made at the beckoning of celebrated conductor Leopold Stokowski (known to generations of film-lovers as the conductor of Disney’s Fantasia). To the delight of the audience, Sir Andrew highlighted the work’s intentional quirkiness, simultaneously succeeding in revealing the master orchestrator that Grainger undoubtedly was.

The concert wrapped up with Prom staples, Elgars’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, Sir Henry Wood’s (he who initiated the Proms) Fantasia on British Sea Songs, Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia (which at one time attracted Beethoven’s attention, writing a set of variations) and finally Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem. Liane Keegan brought much gusto to her performances here and the audience enthusiastically joined in, ably supporting the MSO Chorus. If Jerusalem is the unofficial national anthem of merry England, then surely, if certain cricketing and tennis events are anything to judge by, our home-grown equivalent is Waltzing Matilda. Un-programed, it was nonetheless sung with equal gusto by an audience who, on this occasion, didn’t require written texts.

All in all this was a joyous occasion, with enthusiastic audience participation involving streamers and much flag-waving. While Hamer Hall doesn’t quite generate the same euphoric atmosphere of the RAH and the final night promenaders, Sir Andrew led this celebration of the Best of British (and near British) that was enjoyed by all, both on stage and off. Hopefully this will establish a local tradition that can continue be repeated in years to come.

Last Night at the Proms with the MSO and Sir Andrew Davis was reviewed at Hamer Hall on March 24, 2017. 

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