It may have been her first visit to the BBC Proms, but accordion player Ksenija Sidorova stole the show at the Last Night concert.
The Latvian musician’s performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango, expressive and passionate, brought a packed Royal Albert Hall to its feet.
It happened about halfway through a diverse concert that also paid tribute to the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks.
According to conductor Sakari Oramo, the night exemplified the “healing power of music.”
“Due to the worldwide Covid pandemic, live music-making was halted for many months – and in some places it is still halted,” he explained.
“Music, which is fundamental to human expression, has gone silent. The audience-performer bond had been severed.”
Noting that freedom to create and enjoy music was currently being “threatened and denied” elsewhere in the world, Oramo concluded that it was “very special for us all to be here for the Last Night Of The Proms again, with an audience, to celebrate the healing and uplifting power of music.”
The Prommers, bedecked in crowns, bow ties, bowler hats and a mixture of EU and union flags, were typically enthusiastic, especially after missing out on the 2020 season.
They bobbed up and down to the Sailor’s Hornpipe and sang Land Of Hope And Glory at the top of their lungs- the lyrics performed in full following a very public row over their possible exclusion last year.
And when Oramo paid tribute to Sir Henry Wood, the founder conductor of the Proms back in 1895, one audience member pointed to Wood’s statue at the back of the hall and shouted, “He’s behind you!”
The concert opened with a new commission, Mother, by Iranian-American composer Gity Razaz.
A restless symphonic piece with an extensive percussion section, it depicted the healing power of nature amid the chaos of modern life.
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Before the premiere, Razaz stated that she hoped to capture “the exquisite majesty of our natural world” in a way that “prompts us to take more serious, proactive steps toward protecting our planet.”
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the programme included a heartbreaking new arrangement of Barber’s Adagio For Strings.
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The adagio was performed at the Last Night in 2001, just four days after the atrocity, by American conductor Leonard Slatkin. He requested that the audience refrain from applauding at the end. Instead, they held candles aloft.
Jonathan Manners’ new arrangement was appropriately gloomy and haunting, incorporating Barber’s 1961 choral setting of the Latin text Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us [and] grant us peace.”
A recently rediscovered piece by Florence Price – the first African-American woman to have a symphony performed by a major US orchestra – was also featured, as was Ravel’s lament for World War II victims, Le tombeau de Couperin.
Stuart Skelton, an Australian tenor, brought some levity to the proceedings with a spirited performance of Iain Farrington’s I Still Call Australia Home, delivered in an eye-catching black sequined jacket.
Later, he led the audience in the traditional Rule, Britannia! chorus. wearing a full Australian cricket uniform
Skelton also indulged in his Wagner obsession, performing the poignant Wesendonck Lieder with rich subtlety before unleashing The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, a love song.
The 53-year-old, who was also making his Last Night debut, admitted that he was still pinching himself after being invited.
“To be considered for inclusion in that pantheon? That’s not something you’d expect. It’s one of those bucket-list, dream-come-true moments “According to him, he told the BBC. “It’s like the world’s most prestigious music festival’s after-party.”
He even came up with a bespoke cocktail to celebrate the occasion.
Despite his charm, accordion virtuoso Sidorova was the night’s undisputed highlight, introducing the Last Night to two mildly revolutionary elements: the accordion and the tango.
She first appeared on stage in the first half, in Franck Angelis’ Chiquiln de Bachn (Little Boy at Bachn), a saccharine storey about a six-year-old boy selling flowers outside a cheap restaurant in the heart of Buenos Aires’ theatre district.
Sidorova, seated on a piano stool and wearing some impressively voluminous sleeves, imbued the piece with a nostalgic quality, deftly avoiding maudlin sentimentality.
But it was her second-half performance of Libertango, a Strictly Come Dancing staple, that really showcased her captivating and witty playing style, as she traded riffs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Viewers and promgoers alike were enthralled by the performance.
The pomp and ceremony of the Last Night – described as a “upmarket stag do” by Rob Rinder on BBC Radio Three – marked the end of a triumphant six-week Proms season.
This year’s festival welcomed 2,000 musicians, 30 orchestras, and, most importantly, tens of thousands of fans, a year after it was reduced to a two-week, socially-distanced skeleton.
Highlights included the highly-anticipated concert debut of John Wilson’s Sinfonia of London, who played a soul-stirring and charismatic programme that included Strauss, Ravel and Korngold’s filmic Symphony in F sharp major.
Chineke – the UK’s only black and ethnically diverse orchestra – celebrated diversity in composers as well as performers, playing pieces by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande and Florence Price.
The Aurora orchestra performed Igor Stravinsky’s 1945 suite from The Firebird from memory (as is their custom), while the Kanneh-Mason family joined forces to perform an updated version of Camille Saint-Saens’ beloved suite The Carnival of the Animals.
The Proms Festival Orchestra – an ensemble of leading freelance players who were specially assembled to acknowledge the difficulties they faced during the pandemic – performed one of the most emotionally charged concerts.
A double-bassist who’d taken a job as an undertaker and a harpist who’d started working in a vineyard to make ends meet were among the 80-piece orchestra.
Their performance of Mahler’s Fifth Sympony was called “stirring” and a “triumph” by The Times.
A collection was held at the Last Night to support a hardship fund for freelance musicians who have found themselves in financial difficulties after the last 18 months.
The Proms will return next year on Friday, 15 July.