Review: The Last Night of the Proms (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

Benjamin Northey conducts Queensland Symphony Orchestra in The Last Night of the Proms. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Tally ho! Saturday night was our first time at Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s annual The Last Night of the Proms event. Both the stage and audience were adorned in Union Jack and Australian flags for an evening of Australian and British orchestral music, a tribute to the eight-week season of daily orchestral classical music concerts at Royal Albert Hall in central London – The Proms – that has taken place since 1895. Australians can hear most of these concerts broadcast on the ABC, but The Last Night of the Proms lets Brisbane audiences join in on the flag-waving and fun, with the unique thrill of live orchestral music.

“It’s music of such incredible quality…it never fails to inspire,” said guest conductor Benjamin Northey to the audience, adding that at The Last Night of the Proms the second half of the evening “turns into a bit of a riot…the rule book goes out the window.” A riot only in a very English sense, perhaps – everyone remained seated throughout the performance but there was certainly cheering and singing from the audience!

Benjamin Northey conducts Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

It was a full stage on Saturday night, with the orchestra joined by Brisbane Chorale and guests, soprano Rachelle Durkin and oboe soloist Diana Doherty. The concert opened with all hands on deck in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, II – the inclusion of a choir in orchestral music always adds that extra factor, speaking straight to the heart with another level of awe. The beautiful voices of Brisbane Chorale were a delight throughout the evening.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

The second piece was a highlight for me, and one I don’t recall having heard before. Westlake’s Spirit of the Wild: Concerto for Oboe was fun and unusual, written specifically for soloist Diana Doherty, who performed with intense focus. Doherty played energetically, swaying and almost dancing at times, the oboe glittering under the stage lights as her fingers flew over the instrument. Inspired by the wilds of Tasmania, this piece vividly reminded me of my recent travels there: I could hear scurrying animals, bird calls, waves crashing on cliffs, and the rippling of the harp evoked imagery of dripping and rippling water. The piece combined moments of suspense with moments of incredible energy, and Doherty’s performance was outstanding.

Diana Doherty performs with Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

The first half of the evening finished with crashing cymbals, thumping percussion, trumpeting brass, and the great undertone of the organ with Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3 in C minor (Organ Symphony): Finale.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

QSO leapt straight into the second half with Rossini’s William Tel Overture after the interval, instantly recognisable even to those of us with little musical knowledge, followed by Gounod’s Je veux vivre from Roméo et Juliette. Guest soprano Rachelle Durkin, recently arrived from New York, commanded the stage, full of personality as she interacted with the audience, and her vocals were staggering – powerful, varied, and perfectly controlled.

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Rachelle Durkin performs with QSO. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Gjeilo’s Tundra was another favourite for me – chillingly beautiful, with a more earthly and grounded quality after the overt joy of the previous piece, perfectly showcased by Durkin and the women of Brisbane Chorale. Then it was back to big personality in Gershwin’s By Strauss, as Durkin told the story physically as well as with her voice, including dancing with Northey as the audience clapped along.

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Rachelle Durkin and Benjamin Northey. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Conductor Benjamin Northey was enthusiastic throughout, and often spoke to the audience between pieces to discuss the music and its history, or to commend the performers. The second half of the evening was interspersed with pieces from Fantasy on British Sea Songs by founder and instigator of the Proms, and its conductor until only a few years before his death, Henry Wood. More traditional, the simple and familiar melodies of the sea songs were easy to follow and the audience enjoyed singing along with them.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Durkin returned to the stage, with a change of costume, for Lehár Meine Lippen, Sie Küssen so Heiss from Guiditta, once again embodying a character in addition to her stunning vocals as she accepted a rose from Northey and gave it to someone in the audience.

Rachelle Durkin and Benjamin Northey with Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance: No.1 in D (Land of Hope and Glory) was the first time the audience began to sing along with enthusiasm; the choral music of Parry’s Jerusalem was uplifting; and the evening finished with more of Wood’s sea songs, including a rousing finale singalong of Rule, Brittania!

Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Brisbane Chorale. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

This kind of event is the perfect introduction to orchestral music, since many of the pieces are familiar from movie scores or other pieces of popular culture, giving a comfort of familiarity. I am sometimes intimidated by what I do not know or understand when seeing the orchestra performs (attributable to the form and surrounding culture -not to QSO, who actively try to counteract this in several ways through their programs and pre-concert talks). The Last Night of the Proms felt like there were no wrong answers, it was a relaxed atmosphere, and everyone onstage and offstage was having fun.

Next on the QSO calendar is Cathedral of Sound on May 10. For ticketing and further information, visit the Queensland Symphony Orchestra website.

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