Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In Englands green & pleasant Land

To judge from video footage of Last Night of the Proms, 2013, the “dark Satanic Mills” that William Blake references in Jerusalem—Britain's other national anthem (Hubert Parry, 1916)—were on the minds of exactly nobody. 

There on the podium stood the American conductor Marin Alsop, the first woman to conduct what is doubtless the world's most famous annual concert but for New Year's in Vienna. You really wanted to think this wasn't such a big deal anymore: Alsop herself has been around, and high profile, for almost a generation. I was a fan of Sarah Caldwell 50 years ago. 

But in fact Alsop's evening was a Very Big Deal. As she noted in her eight-minute address from the podium, “I have to say I'm still quite shocked that it could be 2013 and there could be firsts for women.” (“Here's to the seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, hundredths,” she went on when the applause died down.) 

“Girl's can't do that” came up “just last week,” she reminded us—this of course an allusion to Vasily Petrenko's appalling remarks to the Oslo Aftenposten to the effect that “musicians react better when they have a man in front of them;” “a cute girl on a podium means that the musicians think about other things.” “When they are faced with a man there are less erotic distractions, and with less sexual energy the musicians can focus on the music.” He went on, too, about the demands of motherhood, and his eventual backpedaling after a well-warranted international hue-and-cry—”I meant to be describing the situation in Russia”—didn't help his case much.

Alsop was right to suggest that Henry Wood and the founders would have been pleased by this late but obvious next-step: the series established in Queen's Hall in 1895 along the lines of the old pleasure-garden concerts in England and on the continent was specifically meant to create “a public for classical and modern music” “in easy stages.”

Just earlier in the second half, another American, Joyce diDonato (born in Prairie Village, Kansas, no less), topped her two sets with a matchless “Over the Rainbow.”

This, too, was messaged (again, toward Russia): her “signature tune,” she said in advance, was offered to the LGBT community: “In the last few months [the song] has become particularly pertinent given what’s going on in Russia. This is particularly something I want to do for those over there who don’t have a voice.” Her lengthier written statement was posted on her website.

Overt political statements are theoretically forbidden at the Proms, though the meanings at issue were as obvious as Nigel Kennedy's Aston Villa football shirt. There was also, as noted in the press, a palpable sense of best behavior—and Alsop's dignified aplomb through the hubub (above all in Kennedy's bizarre Czárdás, unfunny and on the whole unpleasant) said as much about her achievement as the first-rate music she made. It was, in a word, historic.


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