At last, a woman takes centre stage at the Proms

At the Royal Albert Hall on the Last Night, I resisted waving a flag yet easily forgave the excesses of those around me who were.

When, late in the evening of Saturday 7 September, it was time for Marin Alsop to speak with her voice rather than through her hands, the first female conductor of the Last Night of the Proms did what every successful sports star knows is a sure-fire route to spontaneous applause – she praised her audience. You might even call them her fans.
 
She also thanked her parents for creating an environment in which music was ever-present when she was growing up in the United States and reminded all those who’d doubted a woman should be conducting the Last Night that – and I paraphrase – it was absurd that we should be speaking about firsts for women in 2013.
 
Her point was well made and her performance was first-rate, serious yet sympathetic to the occasion, both sombre and frivolous, and to the expectations of the 6,000-strong audience in the Royal Albert Hall, there to participate as well as listen (those standing had paid only £5 for their tickets and wanted to be entertained; many others who wanted tickets were turned away at the door).
 
I’ve long felt ambivalent about the Last Night of the Proms. As a boy, when there were only three television channels, I resented how it clogged the Saturday evening BBC1 schedule and delayed the start of Match of the Day, invariably beyond my bedtime. Later, I was irritated by all the exaggerated pomp and circumstance – the flag-waving and the Union Jack hats and waistcoats, the jingoism and post-imperial hysteria.
 
I’m more forgiving now and understand the Last Night for what it is, the culmination of a summer-long festival of live classical performance, which this year included the first ever complete performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Proms, with Daniel Barenboim conducting – one more of the cultural glories offered up by Mr Putin’s irrelevant small island.
 
There were some thrilling performances on Saturday evening, notably from Joyce DiDonato, the radiantly blonde mezzo-soprano from Kansas. She mixed canonical works, such as the aria from Rossini’s La donna del lago, with the popular songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the mournful anthem of Liverpool football club, which had the woman in front of me weeping.
 
As much as I admired DiDonato’s vocal power and glamour, I most enjoyed the performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, with the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies as soloist. Alsop trained under Bernstein and spoke afterwards of her delight to have discovered that his son was in the audience for such a special performance.
 
The Last Night crowd enjoys celebrity and the punk violinist Nigel Kennedy, less ubiquitous nowadays than he was in the 1990s, was on hand to provide it. He performed Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” with diligence and feeling, his eyes closed, his neck strained and taut. He returned later, dressed in an Aston Villa shirt (Kennedy liked football long before it became obligatory to like football), to make mischief in a scattergun performance of Monti’s “Csárdás”. Alsop conducted Kennedy with amused tolerance, indulging his egoism and erratic reinterpretations without ever allowing him to slip completely free from her control.
 
From here the audience of flag-wavers, the so-called Prommers, took over as Alsop led them – or should it be us? – through renditions of “Land of Hope and Glory”, “Jerusalem” and the national anthem. I resisted waving a flag yet easily forgave the excesses of those around me who were, especially as nearly as many foreign flags as Union Jacks were on display.
 
Watch the Last Night on BBC iPlayer until 14 September 
Radiant medley: Joyce DiDonato delivered a selection of arias and songs

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism