Saturday, June 25, 2011

Last Night of the Proms

The penultimate concert of the TSO season was a spectacle.  Anyone who has said Canadians fall short in the patriotism area when compared to our counterparts south of the border (admittedly I have been one of these), was not in Roy Thomson Hall this past Wednesday evening.

The Last Night of the Proms concert with conductor Bramwell Tovey has been a tradition for I don't know how long, although this is the first year I attended.  Unfortunately, Maestro Tovey's mother passed away last weekend, so he had to cancel and return to England.  I imagine finding a replacement for a concert like this proves rather tricky.  Not only does the conductor need to know British music, they need to connect with the audience in that Pops concerts way, and it would help if they had ties to the country the Proms originated in.  Well the TSO struck gold with Maestro Grant Llewellyn, a Welshman (a fact he reminded the audience of regularly throughout the evening) who's bio describes him as "renowned for his exceptional charisma, energy and easy authority in music of all styles and periods", all skills he demonstrated in spades.  The subtitle of this years concert was "A Royal Wedding Celebration", for the marriage of Kate and William, the now Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

I know very little about the real Proms in England, except it's a series of concerts on the Promenade, and the last night of the concerts is a more relaxed atmosphere featuring British hits (see here for the wikipedia explanation).  The Toronto celebration started before you even entered the hall with the 48th Highlanders of Canada Pipes and Drums bagpipe regiment playing outside.  There were also lots of people with flags and sporting fancy hats.  I had no idea this was part of the event or I would have gone hat hunting or at least brought the tiny Scottish flag we have by our fireplace.

The concert started with "O Canada", then "God Save the Queen", during which the audience respectfully stood and sang along.  Maestro Llewellyn said he had spoken with Bramwell Tovey and had been instructed to ensure we all had a good time, then dove into the Wedding Celebration with Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  It's nice to hear there's more to this piece than the usual segment played a weddings.

Next up was the "English Folk Song Suite" by Ralph (pronounced the proper British way as "Rayf") Vaughn Williams.  Garnering a laugh from the audience at the proper pronunciation Llewellyn said he didn't know why people found that funny and humourously singled out a lady near the front to explain it to him.  She couldn't and he continued by reading the lyrics of the three songs in the suite..."Seventeen Come Sunday", "My Bonny Boy" and "Folk Songs from Somerset".  Having recently been introduced to several other pieces by Vaughn Williams, I found these quite a departure, definitely more light hearted, and wonderfully enjoyable.

We then moved onto Scotland, for Hugh S. Roberton's "All in the April Evening".  As a reminder again of his background Llewellyn said he felt very comfortable with this piece because it was about sheep, and being a Welshman that was something they have a lot of (linked version is complete with sheep).  At this point the 2nd chair violinist handed him a small stuffed sheep.  Laughing he took it, looked at it suspiciously and said "he looks a little nervous" before placing the animal behind him on the conductors stand.  The 2nd chair cellist then stood up and reached out to pet to sheep.  Llewellyn turned around with a somewhat stern "did I say you could touch my sheep?" as the cellist cowered behind his cello.  Quickly relenting the Maestro reconsidered with "actually you can have it, it's a ram".  This sparked another round of laughter from the audience.  Finally able to continue the introduction, the piece is actually about the crucifixion of Christ and is for unaccompanied chorus sung by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, he turned around to begin and was faced with this ram.  Picking it up and looking unsure where to put it, he settled on the floor.   After placing it he pointed down as if ordering him to "stay".  Not everyone could see this given the position of the flag behind the podium, but it cracked me up again.

The first half concluded with Sir Hubert Parry's "I Was Glad", the song to which Kate Middleton walked down the Westminster Abbey aisle (see link), and a Llewellyn public service announcement that those without flags would feel left out in the second half, so they should go contribute to the TSO education fund by buying one at intermission.  Advertising his point, he walked down the red carpet of the stage with a Welsh flag over his shoulder.
TSO stage
Beginning the second half was a piece any graduate is extremely familiar with (as well as any high school band member who's played at commencement), the "Pomp and Circumstance March".  During which Will and Kate, wearing their wedding day best, took a stroll down the red carpet performing the royal wave.  At their appearance the Choir pulled out green branches to recreate the trees that were in Westminster Abbey for the wedding.  With the audience on their feet, the "Royals" led in the singing of "Land of Hope and Glory".  They chatted a bit with Llewellyn who congratulated them on their marriage.  He then wanted to acknowledge those couples in the audience who had been married (to the same spouse, "call me old fashioned" he said) for more than 50 years.  I wasn't expecting very many, but there were a lot!  Probably about 15 or so people standing.  He increased it to 60 years, and there were still 5 or so on their feet.  At 65 he had about 3 couples left, and dedicated the next song, "Love and Marriage" to them.

A short summary of "Excerpts from An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise" is that it starts with some really bad playing in the strings, gets worse at about 4:30am when the trumpets come in after having had too much to drink, and finally turns pretty when the sun rises.  "Songs that Kept Us Going" was prefaced by Llewellyn as "containing songs you may know and want to sing, but don't".  Although admitting you can't keep a Welshman from singing he said to be aware that sudden changes may occur and don't annoy your neighbour.  Indeed he turned and cued the audience at times, mouthing the words enthusiastically for "White Cliffs of Dover", "Bless Em' All" and "We'll Meet Again".

Apparently there's a Toronto tradition linked to "Fantasia on British Sea Songs" and someone told the new conductor this existed but failed to mention what the tradition was!  So as he said anything could happen.  And it did!  After the introduction he turned to the orchestra to be greeted by an empty principal trumpet chair.  The piece starts off with bugle call and couldn't start until Andrew McCandless was found.  Suddenly from the back of the hall the trumpet rang out.  Facing the orchestra again Llewellyn found concertmaster Etusko Kimura holding what liked like a 1/2 size violin.  "The Sailor's Hornpipe" proceeded as she scraped out the medley, hitting sour notes along the way on this tiny violin.  She switched back to her usual, as it continued getting faster and faster.  Then the choir started the wave!  It easily went around the mezzanine level and through the balcony, but due to the horseshoe nature of the hall the main floor seats were pretty much left out.  Recognizing this, the conductor led them in their own version at the end of the segment while admonished the balcony levels for being so invested in the wave we failed to speed up our clapping.  So we clapped faster as they played the segment again.  The next section was to depict women saying goodbye to their sailors and the choir continued their shenanigans by pulling out the handkerchiefs and balling.  Another segment began with a clarinet solo, which I was actually hoping to hear, but evidently the choir finds the clarinet a dull instrument as they pulled out every other thing they could to do, including playing string games.  I've probably mixed some of these up, but it had the audience in stitches and the conductor going along for the ride.  Even some orchestra members seemed to have trouble keeping a straight face.  It was all in good fun, and came together in a rousing version of "Rule Britannia" as Kate and William reappeared.
Llewellyn asked what Kate had gotten "her hubby" for his birthday (Prince William's birthday actually was on June 21) and she indicated that perhaps he had missed it but she had played him a song on the French horn, and indeed she had picked her way, in her wedding dress, through the percussion section and slipped into her seat for "Love and Marriage".  Impossible to miss.  The Maestro indicated it was just the beginning of many more years of horn playing, at which the brass section broke up laughing.  I'm thinking I got the joke, but am not going to read too much into it. ;)  As it turns out Kate was being portrayed by soprano and TSO utility horn player Erin Cooper-Gay.
Baritone Jesse Clark was William.
Facing the audience for a final time they led in the singing of "Jerusalem".

Just when you thought the concert was over, they obliged with an encore of "I'll Be Seeing You", one of my favourite songs which can be done in so many ways to suit any mood (see the Deep Space Nine episode "It's Only a Paper Moon" for example).  This version included a recorded message from the then Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret on a BBC radio program wishing goodnight to children who were being evacuated from London during the World War.  It was a touching ending to an evening filled with fun.  It was so much fun in fact that my father, typically not a symphony going guy, wants to go back next year!  My much beloved Pops are having wonderful effects.

Orchestra members in the spirit of things
On another note, Frank Morphy the 2nd oboist and TSO member since 1972,  appeared during the second half sporting a shirt with the slogan "Retired: Don't Ask Me To Do a Darn Thing".  I'm guessing that might have been his final concert, as the TSO now has a 2nd oboe audition notice on their website.  Happy retirement!
He wasn't the only one switching attire.  Others donned hats, several ladies tiaras, and the previously mentioned 2nd chair violin even had on a veil!  It's always awesome when the orchestra gets into a show.

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