I take it back. In July, before the start of the Proms, I said in an Financial Times Artscast (the weekly arts podcast) that this year’s season looked one of the least promising in Nicholas Kenyon’s 12-year reign as director. How wrong could I have been? Far from turning out a disappointment, the 2007 BBC Proms have gone from one highlight to the next, taking Kenyon’s last year to a triumphant conclusion.
“Wider still and wider” has been the theme of his period in the post, echoing the words of “Land of Hope and Glory”. That was the title given to the lead article in a free celebratory brochure handed out at the last few concerts – not in itself a symbol of modesty – which cites chapter and verse on how the Proms have grown in the Kenyon era.
Perhaps he can be allowed a bit of self-congratulation. Every year the final press release declares that the past season has just broken all records, but even allowing for the fact that the statistics seem to be counted a different way each time, an average attendance of 87 per cent for the 72 main evening concerts in a venue the size of the Royal Albert Hall is mightily impressive.
Some empty-looking nights near the start must have been outweighed by the full houses that greeted the impressive roll-call of international orchestras in the closing three weeks. The last of them was the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Thursday and Friday, on tour to Europe for the first time with James Levine.
In terms of technical excellence, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s players are up there with the best. It has traditionally been regarded as the most European of the leading orchestras in the US, but in Levine’s hands it has started to show its true stars and stripes. There may not have been 76 trombones on the platform, but sometimes it sounded like it. These were bold, sometimes noisy performances, distinguished more by high-class orchestral quality than any special insight into the varied styles of the works being played. Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust was excellently sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, less so by the three soloists. Elliott Carter’s Three Illusions for Orchestra proposed music of chamber-like detail, sharply delineated by each group of players. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Brahms’s Symphony No.1 were luxuriously performed.
The Last Night of the Proms remains what it always has been. At least, it does in the hall. Proms in the Park, well established now as one of Kenyon’s biggest innovations, replicates live concerts across the country, this year in Glasgow, Middlesbrough and elsewhere. The popular reach of the nationwide event is gratifying, but Kenyon has failed to use it to bring genuine classical music to the masses – a challenge for his successor, perhaps?
This year’s main concert in the Royal Albert Hall included two highly televisual international soloists. Joshua Bell, looking barely half his age, played Ravel’s Tzigane and a couple of arrangements for violin with light-hearted zest. The glamorous Anna Netrebko, opera’s star of the moment, looked a million dollars and sang so beautifully in the final scene from Bellini’s La sonnambula that we minded less the dog’s dinner she made of Strauss’s “Morgen”, with Bell in the violin solo, later. In his first “Last Night”, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Jirí Belohlávek turned in some sparkling performances and won hearts with one of the best speeches for years, modest, affectionate and to the point. Kenyon’s successor, Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3, has a big act to follow.