Conductor: Hilary Davan Wetton
Reviewer: James Garrington
Birmingham’s Symphony Hall may not be everyone’s first choice of a place to go on a warm July evening, but the thought of a Last Night of the Summer Proms is enough to fill this wonderful concert hall to the rafters. Presented by the London Concert Orchestra, the audience are treated to an evening of well-known classics washed down by a welcome complimentary glass of Pimms in the interval.
In an evening full of variety, the tone is set from the start with Rossini’s William Tell Overture, and, as a rare delight, they present it in its entirety. The beautiful cello opening is exquisitely performed, and provides a moment of calm before the rousing and better-known finale section. From there we travel on a tour of the world, with Sousa’s Liberty Bell, complete with the obligatory bell, and a Strauss favourite The Blue Danube Waltz before arriving in Scandinavia for one of the best-loved pieces by Sibelius, the symphonic poem Finlandia. Written in the late 19th century as a protest against Russian involvement in Finland, the stirring music has become symbolic of the Finnish national struggle.
We are taken up to the interval with an extended section of music from Bizet’s Carmen. Opening with the Prelude, we then get introduced to mezzo-soprano Katie Bray who presents a seductive and lyrical Habanera before the haunting woodwind Prelude to Act 3 brings tenor John Pierce to the fore with the Flower Song. Finally, the first half of the evening closes with the rousing Gypsy Song, sending the audience out for their Pimms in good spirits.
The second half provides yet more variety. Opening with Butterworth’s The Banks Of Green Willow, one of only four orchestral pieces written by this talented composer whose life was tragically cut short at the age of 31 during the First World War. Described by the composer as an “Idyll”, it was written in 1913 and is evocative of a peaceful time before the world changed. The variety continues with Brahms Hungarian March No 5, Pachelbel’s Canon,and a glorious version of Elgar’s Nimrod, the wonderful Symphony Hall acoustics coming into their own as they ensure that every subtlety can be clearly heard, before Bray returns with soprano Angharad Morgan. Their voices blend well together in the well-loved Flower Song from Lakme, a piece which was introduced to many when it was used as a television commercial for British Airways. A relative newcomer, Bray more than holds her own with the more experienced Morgan and together they produce a delightful sound which was very well received at this performance.
The final section of the evening is very much geared towards the Last Night of the Proms, starting with a stirring Dambusters March, which gets the audience clapping and waving flags to the music, and heading via Ron Goodwin’s theme to Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines to Jerusalem with the expected audience sing-along. Henry Wood’s arrangement of Handel’s See the Conquering Hero Comes leads to Morgan coming back, draped in a Union Jack, to lead the audience in another sing-along and flag-waving version of Rule Britannia. Pierce’s passionate performance of Nessun Dorma demanded an encore at this performance, and leads the way for the expected Land of Hope and Glory to close the concert, with Symphony Hall a jubilant sea of red, white and blue in a scene evocative of the Royal Albert Hall in September.
At the helm, conductor Hilary Davan Wetton seems equally at home talking to the audience as conducting the orchestra, and his dry wit adds to the pleasure of an evening of variety and wonderful music. This is a concert where the audience are not only allowed but actively encouraged to join in the fun, and where the acoustics allow every nuance and syllable to be clearly heard. All in all, a pretty good way to spend a July evening after all.
Reviewed on 5th July 2014.