Marin Alsop leads historic Last Night of the Proms

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September 09, 2013|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

LONDON -- The Last Night of the Proms became a First Night for Women on Saturday when Marin Alsop walked onto the stage of the massive and festively adorned Royal Albert Hall and made a bit of history in this history-drenched country.

“A lot has been made of me being the first woman to conduct the Last Night,” Alsop told the crowd of about 6,000 inside the hall and masses more watching on giant screens in Hyde Park and locations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

She was cut off by a storm of cheers and applause before continuing: “I’m incredibly honored and proud, but I have to say it’s amazing that there can still be a first for women in 2013.”

That’s the message that Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra, kept telling the British press in the days leading up to what is one of the most popular annual events on the culture calendar here.

But the press just kept on driving that point, so Alsop used the occasion to remind everyone that there should, and could, be a lot more women in her field.

In a remarkable case of bad timing, Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, who leads the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, declared last week that orchestras play better for a man. Without mentioning his name, Alsop got in a sly dig at his attitude in her podium speech at the Proms, before urging young girls everywhere to follow their passions.

The whole issue -- the host of the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show called the first-woman focus “a ridiculous row” when he did a morning-after session with Alsop on his Sunday television show -- probably took up too much oxygen.

(Among snarky post-concert comments posted on one British newspaper’s Web site: “It was disgraceful for this woman to use her podium to stage an outburst of special pleading for women.”)

Still, it is certainly worth reminding people that the classical music world is no more immune to sexism than any other. Alsop has done more than anyone to counter that lingering problem, and she has had particular success in Britain.

She led the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra before her Baltimore appointment, and she is not a stranger to the Proms, having led her Brazilian orchestra there last summer and, in a much-praised performance of the Brahms Requiem, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment last month.

The conductor acknowledged her fond, longtime connection to British musicians and audiences in her Proms remarks. She also got in a nice plug for “my wonderful Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,” and used the occasion to advocate for education, urging that music and the arts be “front and center,” not “pushed to the sidelines.”

But the Last Night is not about speeches, although each conductor is expected to make one near the end  (Alsop’s concise, wry address seemed to go over well). It’s about a rousing good time with a mix of classical and popular repertoire, and it attracts a vociferous crowd of 5,000-plus, attired in everything from T's to tuxes, and festooned with any number of variations on the Union Jack. These days, lots of other national flags and emblems dot the hall; people come in from many countries to get in on Last Night fun.

The Proms -- nickname for the summer Promenade Concerts founded by Sir Henry Wood in 1895, and held in Albert Hall since the 1940s -- is an extraordinary series that generates an extraordinary response.

This summer’s lineup of 75 concerts was said to be the most successful ever, with 57 sell-outs.
There was a parade of the world’s great solo artists and orchestras, including Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle in concert with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin and top-notch casts. I heard that via Internet streaming.

And the Vienna Philharmonic, sounding as resplendent as ever, gave a performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 with the masterful Lorin Maazel conducting on the penultimate night of the Proms. I heard that one in person Friday and was quite transported, both by the artistry onstage and the rapt attention of the audience (I swear I don’t remember a single cough during the nearly 90-minute symphony).

The unique thing about the Proms is that the center section of the circular hall is filled with standees, as many as 900 (several hundred more standees are perched in what seems to be a dizzyingly high ring near the ceiling).

The “Prommers” on the floor can be wildly playful during the Last Night. They bob in unison for marches; they wave flags at will (in a Monty Python-worthy touch, someone occasionally hoisted a gigantic inflated banana on Saturday). They also decorated the conductor's podium during the intermission with pink balloons and streamers; I couldn't make it out from where I was sitting, but I learned later that one balloon bore the message "It's a girl." 

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