The Slatkin Concerts in BBC Proms 2003

Written by: Colin Anderson

If third-time-lucky be appropriate, Proms 2003 should go well for Leonard Slatkin. 9/11 controversially changed Last Night history in 2001. Last year brought furore over Rule Britannia; as then, it IS being played this year! New work is welcome. In Camera, which Slatkin and the BBCSO premiered in China then played in London, makes Joseph Phibbs’s Last Night commission keenly anticipated. “I don’t know much about it yet. It was my suggestion to have him write it.”

Slatkin opens Proms 2003 on Friday the 18th with Russian blockbusters – Tchaikovsky from Lang Lang and Prokofiev’s score for Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, arranged Stasevich. He conducted the soundtrack and “captures the essence of the film. The narration is being re-written and there will be opportunities to use the vast caverns of the Albert Hall for various bell effects.” Just one of 70-plus Proms, their planning an immense undertaking. Is the performer ever compromised? “The Proms are subject to a lot of internal approval. I will not conduct anything that I do not wish to, but there are the themes to consider as well as the artists. I enjoy working with Nick Kenyon and Rosemary Gent.”

23 July brings particular Slatkin choices: London symphonies by Haydn and Vaughan Williams plus, good news, William Schuman’s Song of Orpheus. “I adore Bill and his music. Sadly neglected, even in the States, it’s a pleasure to present this highly original voice at the Proms.” Is London recognisable in VW’s masterpiece? “I know he said there was no programmatic intent, but that must be taken with a grain of salt. It is a symphony, but a descriptive one.” 19 August brings more Americana and a new concerto for Evelyn Glennie from Chen Yi. “There’s a theme of Greek tragedy this year. No better example appears in American music than Medea’s Dance of Vengeance; I always enjoy doing Barber’s dramatic piece. Chen Yi is a Chinese composer who incorporates her traditions with that of the West. It’s showy and very effective; Evelyn is also required to sing in a Peking opera style.” Then there’s more Greek legend. Slatkin, I recall, resists the whole of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë because of Charles Munch’s peerless 1955 Boston recording. “I still feel that, but keep trying anyhow. I adore this score. Like Firebird, there are moments that seem just for scene changes. But somehow, if one moves these sections along, it’s fine.”

Mention of Firebird reminds of Slatkin’s successful trimming of Stravinsky’s ballet last season. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet on 23 August promises “a similar idea, about 65 minutes of music. I want to keep the sections with the mandolins as that seems a very Proms-like moment!” There’s also Shostakovich’s first violin concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, a “very intelligent musician who brings a thoughtful approach to the piece without sacrificing its drive. Good sense of humour in him too!” Place your bets on whether it’s the Rimsky-Korsakov or Shostakovich orchestration for the prelude to Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. An odds-shortening clue: “Still figuring it out. Makes sense to do the Shostakovich with his violin concerto coming next!”

Full-circle then to “a traditional Last Night. Pomp and Circumstance comes just before the Sea Songs because television found it difficult to cut back and forth to the parks last time. I thought it was a fine second-half opener! I haven’t started on the speech! There is no better audience. The atmosphere is electric and the connection with the public immediate. I can tell you that one of next year’s programmes will fall on my 60th birthday.” The champagne’s already on ice!

  • BBC Proms
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 9 July and is reproduced here with permission

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