The Last Night of the Proms

Saturday, September 15, 2001 by

First came the pictures. Arresting images terrifyingly simple to understand. Frames that will resonate through history, tragic marriages of blurred video camera with cruelly focused real life. And as those pictures continued to emerge, filmed from ever more galling angles, so the words began. A torrent of them, raw, unqualified, sorrowful and vitriolic, homespun and world-weary. Attempts to both rationalize and elaborate on a jumble of facts, emotions, and consequences.

These words came from the mouths of trained, veteran broadcasters, aware of the medium into which their thoughts and explanations were pitched. But they also came from a chorus of others, unknowing to varying degrees of the scope to which their random, impulsive outbursts, tears and statements would quickly attain the qualities of the timeless and transcend the here and now to re-echo forever in days, weeks, years to come. Their words, spooled out across the spectrum of television and radio networks around the world, verbalised the impersonal and rendered events more affecting and individual than any broadcaster has yet managed.

But after the words came something else: a silence, at 11am on Friday, historic in both its scale and impact, a three minute space into which a collective sense of mourning was to be directed, and a silence broadcast as such across the entire range of British television stations. It was a buffer against the ongoing wash of words tumbling out from endless phone-ins, discussions, and reports. It halted, too, the further replaying of footage depicting the horror, perverse in its disregard for the laws of logic, gravity and compassion, of buildings in motion.

And after the silence – a further, still different response, formulated in what would otherwise be the most unlikely of places. The Last Night of the Proms witnessed the aftermath to Tuesday’s attacks articulated not through images, words or silence, but through music. The traditional programme of unashamedly boisterous singalongs and popular favourites was dropped for an inspired sequence of meditative, complex works intended to span both grief and hope. An American conductor, Leonard Slatkin, was charged with the daunting responsibility (on his Last Night debut) of holding it all together and rendering the music with enough meaning to impact not just on the audience listening in the Royal Albert Hall in London, but watching on BBC television.

The Proms’ concert season, long transmitted on radio, television or both, prides itself on being a peculiar institution, by turns exhausting, frustrating and overwhelming. You mess with it at your peril. The last time the strict rituals of the Last Night were tampered with ended in controversy. Back in 1990 the conductor Mark Elder proposed various changes in light of Iraq’s recent invasion of Kuwait. He considered the normal programme out of step with the prevailing sober international climate – but his reforms were swiftly vetoed and he was ousted. No such clamour this time. In consultation with the BBC, Leonard Slatkin quickly axed various items that in the current context could be easily deemed tasteless: the traditional singing of Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia, plus the Fantasia On British Sea Songs with its supporting novelty whistles and hooters. Bold moves, and to fully explain this, and outline the nature of their replacements, BBC1 had provided Stephanie Hughes.

Introducing live concerts on TV is a notoriously tricky business at the best of times. You have to avoid appearing overly patronising to an audience with varying knowledge of classical music, and not to appear too smug as you mingle with the glittering corporate élite in all those hospitality boxes. But factor in the weight of the grave symbolism attached to this particular occasion, and a presenter was needed with immediate understanding and experience of striking just the right balance of on-screen tact, tone and endearment. Stephanie Hughes was not that presenter.

She loomed into view dressed in a garish sparkly black dress clutching a huge stick microphone. It would obviously be hard for anyone to have to front such a daunting event, but it wasn’t so much a surfeit of emotion that appeared to plague Stephanie, more an ever-expanding absence of any trace of feeling whatsoever. “The entire world has been shocked by the tragic events in the United States earlier this week,” she intoned dryly, and continued to speak with all the flair of a resolute automaton. Explaining the background to each of the pieces sounded like a chore, whereas the fact the simultaneous outdoor Hyde Park concert was “sponsored by Renault!” seemed an utter thrill.

In vision it was clear she wasn’t adrift in the middle of a heaving crowd, yet her pieces to camera sounded distracted and clumsy. She enjoyed stating the blindingly obvious, and mumbled several of her introductions. Most jarring of all was the way she repeatedly boomed out an unnecessary remark within seconds of the end of each piece, giving no time to pause and reflect, or appreciate the silence and applause within the Albert Hall. Her presence throughout was intrusive and unfortunate – a pesky, irritating sideshow to the more important events unfolding on the concert platform.

The revised programme was intended to move from grief and sadness to a renewed declaration of hope. Reaching for a microphone, Slatkin began: “In times of tragedy most countries have a piece of music that they play as a memoriam. In the United States orchestras and ensembles are playing Barber’s Adagio for Strings.” This elegiac piece, familiar from the film Platoon and elsewhere, was “our music of grief. I would like to ask that before we play it, we all rise and observe a moment of silence.” During this, and the fresh, enlightening performance that followed, cameras moved slowly between shots of the conductor, sections of the orchestra, and static views of the whole Albert Hall. All the while the pictures remained secondary to the music, taking their cue from sounds, and underscoring the power of the evocative melodies and harmonies with restraint and dignity.

This understated camerawork continued through the following pieces – four spiritual songs arranged by Sir Michael Tippett, and the finale to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Subtitles were provided for the latter’s famous “Ode to Joy” chorus, signalling the evening’s shift from sorrow to fortitude. The tone had lightened enough by the end for Slatkin to attempt a wry joke about an American being in charge of this most British of occasions; and more expansive, fluid pictures accompanied the closing rendition of Jerusalem, plus an apparently spontaneous burst of Auld Lang Syne. The camera settled upon a few cheery faces, and found some waving flags: both the Union Jack, and the Stars and Stripes. These close-ups made for greater effect than some of the ambitious long-shots from the roof of the Albert Hall, where the distance merely rendered the scene as if a still portrait. It was a struggle to feel a sense of occasion from such an ill-distinct mass of apparent static bodies.

In addition, compounding the physical and psychological logistics of such an occasion were link-ups with outdoor concerts in as diverse locations as Hyde Park, Gateshead and St. Austell, where 4000 had gathered by the surreal, Kubrick-esque domes of the “Eden Project”. Pictures were fed into the coverage showing shivering crowds standing with their faces upturned towards giant screens, yet remote to proceedings inside the warm Albert Hall and unfortunately appearing even more distant to the viewer at home. Such repeated scenes of mass commemoration and celebration, piped into the choreographed footage of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, almost smothered the potential (both aural and visual) of the concert to evoke and sustain emotion and a connection between sound and event. Thankfully these outside broadcasts were used more sparingly as the evening continued.

“It’s not for me to speak on behalf of the American public,” Leonard Slatkin stated at one point. Instead he let his music do that, to provide a canvas upon which audience and viewer could assemble and expand their own response, in isolation or with others, listening in the auditorium or watching on TV around the world. It made for a startling collision of technology and artistry, of mass expression and individual attachment.

In times of crisis and tragedy television can hold a prism up to reality and delineate with crystal clarity a stream of explanations, observations and motivations. It can also diffuse and distort actuality, bouncing understanding and significance back on themselves to create a murky panorama of half-truth and rumour. Images, words, silences, even music can collapse under the weight of countless imposed meanings. Slatkin, his performers, and the BBC production team chose a different route. They stepped back, allowing a space for the onlooker, the viewer, to fathom their own relationship with events; and in doing so, they made room for a uniquely personal reconciliation between understanding and emotion.


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