Stand by for a little glimpse into my life from nearly twenty years ago. A different kind of Last Night of the Proms. A concert spectacularly misnamed by a group of Lancaster University students around fifteen years before that. How can you stage a ‘Last Night of the Proms’ when there hasn’t been a series of concerts beforehand?
None of us organising the 1994 Proms concert at Lancaster University thought to question that basic problem. We were concentrating on something entirely different.
We were giddy with the power of being either members of the organising committee – ULMS, the University of Lancaster Music Society – or conductors of the various ensembles. Friend Patrick – who now plays principal trumpet in the Ulster Orchestra – conducted the University of Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, a band once led by BBC Singers soprano Olivia Robinson. Other pal Peter Faint – who produced the soundtrack for the BBC Proms Sondheim Mashup last year – directed the newly set up Lancaster University Swing Band.
A near two hour concert was planned – just like any other year – for all members of the music making University music group to participate in. There were posters designed. Strawberries and cream on offer in the interval. Balloons blown up and suspended above the audience by use of a massive net. When the signal was given in the final run of ‘Traditional Proms Music’ the ties would be loosened allowing the balloons to fall to the floor. All very TV.
My focus wasn’t on the balloons. I was far more stressed about the prospect of what felt like my biggest challenge ever. I’d committed the University Wind Band to playing ‘a complete work of three movements’ – Nigel Hess’ East Coast Pictures. It was bound to be a big hit I thought. Previous Wind Band conductor from the year before Neil Aston had introduced Hess’ work to the band.
One year later – like the aspiring producer I longed to be – I worked on the basis that if the band (and the audiences) liked Hess’ music then we should do more of it. East Coast Pictures was the result of that. And – to my mind – it’s also the most difficult to play. A series of four weekly two hour rehearsals might sound like sufficient time to get it together, but University makes all sorts of demands, alcohol and finals being the two most potent. This was going to be a big event. Had I bitten off more than I could chew?
But come the day of the concert, this wasn’t actually the challenge which greeted me as I stepped on to the stage, baton in hand. Where exactly was the principal trombone? He said he’d play. He promised he’d play. I knew it wasn’t difficult for him to play it. I knew just how good he was from the time we both played in Suffolk Youth Orchestra. Where was he?
The same questions rung around my head shortly before the concert began. I reassured myself. Loosen up a bit Jon. He’ll arrive. He’s just being a brass player. He’ll steam in shortly and extend his apologies.
An hour later, Richard was still a no-show. The stage was being set for the Wind Band. We needed the principal trombone. With only one to a part, not having the principal trombone would be a pain in the arse. And anyway, this was my last stab at music making at University before I graduated. I wanted to go out with a bang. Even when I’d coerced the conductor of the Proms segment later in the concert to stand-in and play principal trombone, the question still remained. Where was Richard? And – literally minutes before we processed on stage – where exactly was I going to find a replacement copy of the music Richard still had in his case?
“Take this,” I said to replacement trombonist Noel, handing him the massive conductor’s score as he walked past me backstage, “read your part from the score.”
I wasn’t entirely sure how I would get through the ‘spot’. I knew the music inside out, for sure. But conducting it from memory unexpectedly? Could I do that? Would the band keep it together? Would I finish the piece and discover that just as I feared, conductors aren’t really necessary? Would Richard turn up at the end of the concert ready to play?
As it happened, Richard didn’t turn up. And I never got the music back. The complete set of parts – purchased by the University from Faber Music that year – is missing a principal trombone part. It’s not a sorry tale. Far from it. The performance was – as I recall at least – absolutely fantastic. The very fitting conclusion to my University days I’d hoped for. A burnt-in memory. A moment in time securing vital shared musical experiences. All of this with a brilliant, high octane soundtrack as you hear in the third movement of Pictures – New York (above).
I don’t remember us trying to make the Last Night of the (Lancaster) Proms like the Royal Albert Hall Proms at all. Both years I was involved – the year before as a member of the organising committee – it was the sense that this event was ‘our event’. Those of us who had quickly realised that we weren’t going to be professional musicians saw organising the likes of a concert as preparing for a future life in arts administration. And that this was our practice run. And of all the concerts we organised during the year, the Last Night was the biggest practice of all. The pinnacle. The CV fodder.
But more than that, there was the promise of the ULMS ‘Punch’ directly after the concert. The pay off. One member of the committee had been charged with making a trip to the ‘Cash ‘n’ Carry’ to get as much cheap booze as could be fitted in the vehicle used to transport it back. The distinctly unpleasant (and probably dangerous) concoction was usually mixed with a hefty serving of orange juice and lemonade. A few swigs and the Last Night celebrations were complete – or at least couldn’t be recalled from that moment on, the morning after.
The picture above features members of the ULMS Committee from the 1993 Last Night of the Proms at the University of Lancaster, post concert raising plastic cups full of ‘that punch’.
The videos embedded in this post are of all three movements from Nigel Hess’ East Coast Pictures played in concert at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, conducted by James Maddocks (born incidentally, only four years before I conducted Pictures at Lancaster in 1994.)