One of the huge privileges of being part of the BBC Symphony Chorus is taking part in the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. We are the amateur choir attached to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and our ranks are made up of people from all walks of life, such as teachers, lawyers, students, doctors, HR people, photographers, care workers, tax specialists, psychologists, fund raisers, arts administrators, mums, and even a couple of publishers. In some ways we are a disparate group, but we are united by our love of singing, taking on challenging music, and performing it to the highest standard.
For us, the Last Night of the Proms is a bit like an end-of-term party, after the hard work of the whole Proms season. It is certainly different from many of the concerts we do with unusual repertoire and smaller audiences. We usually perform in five or six concerts over the eight-week Proms season, but often start rehearsals for them in the January or February previously, in order to have enough time to prepare the demanding works we are asked to sing by the orchestra. For the Last Night we cast aside our usual black concert wear and bring out the party dresses and the bling, and this year a Sikh member of the tenors treated us to a red, white and blue turban.
This year we performed a piece by Suk in Czech, and Delius’s Songs of Farewell, both in tribute to Jirí Belohlávek, the Czech Chief Conductor of the orchestra, whose last concert it was with us as Chief Conductor. The Czech required for the Suk was rapid and tongue-twisting, but taught to us by a wonderful language coach who patiently explained which bit of tongue, teeth and palate needed to be where to produce each type of sound, and corrected us over and over again until it sounded convincing. However, it was a little nerve-wracking trying it all out on Jirí for the first time who of course knew exactly what we were trying to say. The Delius in English seemed easier at first sight, but is actually a very technically demanding piece to sing, with long phrases which have to float apparently effortlessly, and lots of words to enunciate clearly while not interrupting the flow of the music. The singing in the second half of the concert consisted of the usual Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem, and a lovely Britten setting of the National Anthem, all from memory, and testing your ability to remember where to stand up and sit down at exactly the right time.
Going out on stage in front of 6000 people in the Royal Albert Hall is always exhilarating, but when they are all in party mood too, cheering and waving flags, it is a joyous moment. Everyone is intent on having a great time, but until the patriotic stuff begins in the second half of the concert (accompanied by the traditional hooters and popping balloons) the music is all listened to with hushed attention and enormous appreciation. We are blessed with some of the best seats in the house, and get to watch world-class performers close up: this year Joseph Calleja and Nicola Benedetti. But the star moment this time was when eight gold and silver medal Olympic and Paralympic rowers came on stage, draped in union jacks and sporting their medals, in the middle of Rule Britannia. The noise in the hall was deafening, as everyone jumped to their feet, cheering and clapping. It felt like a wonderful celebration of a truly memorable summer for the UK, the culmination of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, as well as the Proms.
Find out more about the BBC Symphony Chorus (and perhaps come and join us!) here.