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19 September 2013

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.

By Jason Cowley

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.

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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.

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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