The title of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert on 15 June at Fairfield Halls in Croydon has a special significance because not only is Last Night of the Proms sure to be a typically rousing occasion, it will also be the Orchestra’s last appearance there – at least, for the next two years while the major venue undergoes refurbishment.
Croydon itself holds a special place in the RPO’s affections for it was at the Davis Theatre in the town, on 15 September 1946, that the Orchestra gave its first-ever concert under the baton of its founder, Sir Thomas Beecham.
The concert was a triumph, a delighted Beecham telegraphing a friend, “Press virtually unanimous in praise of orchestra. First Croydon concert huge success.”
The RPO returned to play in the town on many occasions but its relationship with Croydon was cemented when, on 2 November 1962, Fairfield Halls – so-called because it comprises three halls – opened.
The Concert Hall, the biggest of the three, can seat almost 1,800 people. From the start, the fine quality of its acoustics attracted the world’s greatest classical artists and orchestras for concerts and recordings. The Halls’ management team was fond of saying that the mistakes in the acoustics made by the designers of London’s Royal Festival Hall were learnt and avoided by the designers of Fairfield Halls.
Whatever, the RPO and, just as importantly, its audiences never had reason to complain about the quality of the Orchestra’s sound whenever it performed at Fairfield Halls, which is why the end of its relationship with the famous venue is sure to be a sad chapter in its history.
But what a fabulous concert to end that relationship with: the RPO, conducted by John Rigby and featuring a special guest star (the soprano Deborah Norman), will perform a feast of classical favourites including Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Holsts’ Two Songs Without Words.
Of course, such a concert wouldn’t be complete without traditional favourites such as Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1, and Elgar’s arrangement of Parry’s Jerusalem. Fortunately, they’ll be on the programme, too.
This rousing finale to the RPO’s long relationship with Fairfield Halls is just one of a sumptuous selection of Last Night of the Proms concerts featuring not only the conducting talents of John Rigby, but Hilary Davan Wetton too, as well as the voices of Deborah Norman and mezzo-soprano Rose Setten.
Also lending her considerable vocal powers to the RPO’s Last Night of the Proms concert series will be the celebrated soprano Elin Manahan Thomas (5 June at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford, and 10 June at The Hawth in Crawley). Ever since she released her first album, Eternal Light, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Elin has performed in most of the world’s most prestigious concert and recital halls, accompanied by many of the world’s major conductors and orchestras. In 2012, she entertained a worldwide television audience of more than a billion viewers when she performed at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics.
With such achievements to her name, it’s refreshing, then, to hear she’s really looking forward to singing at two of the RPO’s Last Night of the Proms concerts.
“It’s always great fun,” she says. “The fluffy dress, the rousing songs… My friends all know I sing lots of early music but they come to my Last Night concerts to hear me sing all the big songs and arias. It’s great fun but I do take it seriously.”
And with good reason. The fact is, most members of the audience know this music by heart and expect only the best performances.
“There’s a real pressure to sing at your very best,” she says. “Part of me hopes people will just get carried away with the big tunes, but I know they’ll be keen the performances meet their high expectations. I promise not to disappoint them.”
Fortunately, she can count on a great orchestra to make sure she doesn’t.
“The members of the RPO are such capable and versatile musicians,” says Elin. “They quickly tune into how you like to sing a certain piece, and support you. I’m looking forward, in particular, to singing Puccini’s O mio babbino caro and Dvořák’s Song to the Moon with them.”
Beyond her concerts with the RPO, Elin Manahan Thomas is also looking forward to performing to the Prince of Wales at the opening, on 4 July, of the Great Hall at Swansea University.
“It should be a lovely, fun event,” she says. “Almost as fun as my Last Night of the Proms concerts with the RPO!”
Written by John Evans
Last Night of the Proms dates
Dartford Orchard Theatre: Sunday 5 June
Crawley The Hawth: Friday 10 June
Croydon Fairfield Halls: Wednesday 15 June
Northampton Royal & Derngate: Sunday 17 July
Scunthorpe The Baths Hall: Friday 2 September
Lowestoft Marina Theatre: Friday 16 September