Last Night of the Proms review, Royal Albert Hall: Woke notes still make for triumphant show

Jamie Barton
Loud and proud: American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton brought her own 'queer fat femme energy to the Last Night' Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The time was when the Last Night of the Proms was an innocent thing. It was a chance to bob up and down to some sea-shanties, get all misty-eyed while singing Jerusalem, and laugh affectionately at some brave foreign-born conductor trying to be properly English and jokey on the podium. The only problem for the Proms Director was how much seriousness he could stir into the mix, before the Prommers lost all self-control and started letting off balloons.

But it’s hard to be innocent when there’s a Culture War raging, the Extinction Rebellion movement is gathering steam, and Brexiteers and Remainers are at each other’s throats.

This season has shown when it comes to these issues, the Proms is eager – up to a point - to be seen to be on the right side of history. We’ve had not one but two Proms in which the threat of environmental catastrophe has loomed large.  Women composers and conductors have been prominent. The Nina Simone homage was a reminder of the awful heritage of racism in America.

So Director David Pickard’s insistence that the Last Night was “not political” was bound to seem a tad implausible, given that it launched off with a brand-new piece called Woke. Was it a spoof? No such luck. “Continued awareness concerning social and racial justice is close to me as a creator,” announced the part-Eritrean, part-Russian composer Daniel Kidane solemnly in his programme note, “and I sought to channel my optimism for the future through my notes.”

Thank goodness the piece was much more engaging than the description. It launched off in dancing rhythms, the string chords rising and falling in waves under the chirruping winds were not so far from Steve Reich’s minimalism, but the harmonies were darkly suggestive of struggle. Towards the end the music retreated to a lonely place, but revived to end if not in a blaze of glory, at least of hope.

No flagging: the Last Night enjoyed a joyous climax  Credit: BBC

After that there was much to enjoy musically; a burst of Spanish exoticism in the form Falla’s 2nd Three-Cornered Suite, Laura Mvula’s beautiful choral arrangement of her own Sing to the Moon, and Percy Grainger’s lusty Marching Song of Democracy, performed with fervour by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, conducted by Sakari Oramo.

And there was the star guest, the American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who told us on Twitter that she’s “proud to bring my own queer fat femme energy to the Last Night.”

And boy, didn’t she just. She was seductive in the Habanera from Carmen, furious and then heart-broken in the great aria O don fatale from Verdi’s Don Carlos, and sassy and finger-snapping in Gershwin’s I got Rhythm. 

Later, when things had got properly silly and balloons were flying she reappeared in the bisexual pride colours of lavender, pink and blue to sing Rule Britannia. At the delirious climax she brandished not an imperial spear but the gay pride flag. Everyone went wild.  It was proof that the Proms can be thoroughly woke, and yet still be its own triumphant self.