LONDON (Reuters) - Australian singer Kylie Minogue drew crowds to Hyde Park, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja sang his heart out at the Royal Albert Hall, but the big stars of the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday were the standing "Prommers" in the vast indoor venue.
The Last Night has become one of the biggest musical celebrations in Britain, and possibly the world and the Prommers, some 600 of them, many of whom come to dozens of concerts during the two-month-long BBC Proms season, brought red, white and blue Union Jack flags, noisemakers, funny hats, beach balls and even a giant inflatable banana to celebrate in the standing area in the middle of the hall.
They actually took over the 6,000-seat hall at one point, to sing a heartfelt and poignant "Auld Lang Syne" for departing Czech conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Jiri Belohlavek, who received a big cheer when he pulled out the CBE honour given him by Queen Elizabeth and put it round his neck.
The crowd gave another roar when, unannounced on the programme, nine of Britain's Olympic and Paralympic winners for water sports were ushered onstage for a huge singalong version of "Rule Britannia", with Calleja dressed in a Union Jack sports windbreaker, underneath which he wore a black T-shirt with a Maltese cross, to sing "Britannia rules the waves".
"It's a big end-of-term party," said computer programmer Philip Trueman, 50, of Winchester, England, dressed in formal black with a carnation in his lapel, as he bade farewell to other Proms colleagues in the middle of the hall as it ended.
He dismissed suggestions that the Last Night is somehow "fascistic" because of the huge number of Union Jack flags on display, saying it's really all about the music that has brought the entire audience, but especially the Prommers, together.
"We are a collective," he said, adding that he has been coming for 20 years and had gone to three weddings of friends he'd made there.
There did indeed seem to be a special spirit in the air in the sold-out Royal Albert Hall, ending the 118th Proms season, and at the Hyde Park concert, where an estimated 40,000 people showed up for the 17th year of the twin outdoor event that handles the overflow, and is geared more to a pop audience.
Many of those in attendance at both venues seemed to be on a high in a year that has seen the Jubilee celebration for Queen Elizabeth's 60 years on the throne, the 2012 Olympics in which Britain's athletes placed well in the medals tables, and the Paralympics.
"I think a lot of people usually don't like to show off that they are British and wave the flag but I think this year they said 'to hell with everything, we are British and we are proud of it'," said Suzanne Pinto of London, one of the 600 Prommers.
Although the Royal Albert Hall event has all of the Proms' 118 years of history going for it, it was hard to tell which was the jollier and livelier place to be - with the classical music lovers at the hall, or dancing, chatting and picnicking the day away in bright sunshine leading to a balmy night in the park.
"This is my first time here and I wasn't sure about coming but it's absolutely fantastic," said Julie Tekgul, 36, of Harwich, Essex, who came to Hyde Park because Minogue "is my favourite icon" but figured she'd be happy to go to either Prom because what makes it work is the atmosphere and the people.
And what of the music that is the reason the BBC Proms has won a reputation as one of the world's great music festivals?
Calleja, for one, was in top form and got ovation after ovation for his ventures into repertoires like Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" and Lara's "Granada" that once were standards for the late Luciano Pavarotti.
Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti also won over the crowd for her performance of Bruch's popular first violin concerto. She also got a semi-cat call for her "great frock" when she came on stage in her second designer gown of the evening.
There was much, much more, including conductor Belohlavek flying the flag for his Czech compatriots by including a choral work by Suk and a festival overture by Dvorak.
"It is fantastic, there is nothing in the world like the Last Night of the Proms," said Uruguayan-born, U.S.-based conductor Jose Serebrier, who has conducted at the Proms but was, like a transiting airline pilot, sitting in the audience.
"The whole festival is the most unique, fantastic festival in the whole world and the Last Night, for all the panoply and all the fun, is still an amazing event. I can't compare it to anything else."
Editing by Paul Casciato