I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I turned up at Richmond Theatre with my mother in tow for One Night at the Proms (even though the official Last Night of the Proms was shown on the BBC the night before), but I arrived armed with my love of music, an open mind, a notepad, and a plastic Union Jack bowler hat (naturally). As it turns out, what I got was some fantastic music, a conductor who doubled up as a stand-up comedian and MC extraordinaire, plus a barrel load of patriotic flag-waving.
Hosted by the brilliant National Symphony Orchestra of London, the night was as jam-packed as a good old British scone with well-known and well-loved tunes. The orchestra opened with the suitably rousing Overture from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, which had been preceded by a somewhat duff joke from the conductor, Graham Sutherland, about the British nation’s love/hate relationship with DIY, in which a man enquires at a library if they have any “books on shelves”. It was a joke so bad it actually went full circle and became funny again. This essentially set the tone for the evening; a night that was part orchestral magnificence and part Benny Hill. After a slight false start, the audience eventually warmed to Sutherland’s ‘comedic’ style and embraced his affable inelegance (and his skilled conducting), along with all the pomp, circumstance, and in some respects, silliness of the evening.
Orchestral highlights included Bratton’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic, during which the percussionist’s use of a yellow bucket-like instrument, which was meant to mimic the sound of a bear’s growl but which actually sounded more like a particularly bad case of flatulence, had me in (somewhat juvenile) stitches. Another highlight was audience-led whistling of the ‘Colonel Bogey March’ from The Bridge on the River Kwai, where we were conducted by Sutherland and the orchestra were left, quite literally, to their own musical devices.
The second half brought with it a more serious tone, with a beautiful rendition of Elgar’s Nimrod, dedicated to the victims of 9/11 on its tenth anniversary. The audience was brought to a complete standstill, and not a breath could be heard. It was truly spellbinding. There was also a rather seductive performance of ‘Habanera’ from Bizet’s Carmen by soprano Sally Johnson and a sobering rendition of Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ by tenor Sean Ruane. Both singers gave good performances though I was not wowed by the quality of their vocals. Johnson in particular was a lot weaker and actually quite disappointing in her lower range, but really shone on the higher notes.
The solemnity did not last for long, however, as we were treated to yet more comical interpretations of Strauss’s ‘Champagne Waltz’, complete with cork-popping sound effects courtesy of the orchestra’s artistic director, Anne Collis, plus a toe-tapping rendition of ‘The Liberty Bell’ by John Philip Sousa – better known as the Monty Python’s Flying Circus theme tune, and ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe’ giving the evening a touch of nautical flair.
The night was rounded off with the obligatory, but nonetheless enjoyable, performances of ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, this time with unprompted and wholly enthusiastic audience participation – frenzied flag-waving included. It had been a very British occasion, with very British jokes, and extremely British behaviour. Plus my Mum and I were whistling, knee-slapping and singing tunelessly all the way home, which has to be a sign of a great evening.