What a pleasure it was watching Marin Alsop strike a blow for feminism and, more importantly, prejudice-free meritocracy as she took the Royal Albert Hall rostrum on Saturday – the first woman ever to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.
I know Marin, a bit. We met a number of times during the six years that she was principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I watched her rehearse, perform and interact with musicians. I interviewed her and, on one occasion, had dinner with her. There were only four other people around that table so it was an opportunity to observe at close-quarters what an extraordinary individual she is.
This little bit of personal knowledge helped me fully understand the absolute belief she had in the brief speech she made on Saturday, graciously acknowledging the honour of being chosen to conduct and then scoffing at the preposterous idea that in 2013 there are so many ”firsts” still to be achieved by women.
She’s right of course. Even though she’s an exceptional conductor, a hugely accomplished musician and an adept operator in the occasionally shark infested waters of the music business, Marin has on occasions had to work twice as hard as any man to achieve her position. The Last Night of the Proms proved that, away from the deadly seriousness of high-end classics, she can tough it out with the boisterous and the brilliant.
Though the concert itself remains distressingly respectful and restrained – my 85 year-old father reckons it’s far more sedate today than it ever was 50-years-ago – the Last Night still manages to let its hair down. Thanks to Marin breathing life and soul into the music and lifting the atmosphere to transcend the invisible restrictions of this security-monitored, health and safety hobbled environment, the evening soared to pleasurable heights.
She sparred impressively with the ever-brilliant Nigel Kennedy who managed to combine exquisite playing with his usual role as the nation’s favourite maverick violinist. Having earlier played a beautiful version of Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending, Kennedy returned, resplendent in the strip of his beloved Aston Villa, and primed to play a feelgood favourite, Italian composer Vittoria Monti’s rhapsodic Hungarian folk piece Csárdás.
With frenetically fast playing, unerring accuracy and flights of crazy fancy he could have left a lesser conductor in the dust. Like a champion rodeo rider Marin stayed on board until the end. There was a flash of mutual respect between them. This was fun and it was also very, very good indeed.
I met Kennedy earlier this summer backstage during his Bach + Fats Waller tour and he told me how much he was looking forward to playing the Last Night of the Proms with Marin. Now we know why. Both are enormously generous musicians but fiercely competitive too.
At the dinner I had with Marin we both just happened to order best end of lamb. She eyed my plate with mock suspicion. “Best end?” she queried. “How can you have the best-end? That’s what I just ordered. We can’t both have the best-end.” She was laughing but the insistence in her voice suggested that it was only half a joke. I suspect that if you left her and Kennedy together on the concert platform for more than a one-off concert, they would drive each other to distraction.