A Final Last Night

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Reviewed by: Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed: 1 September, 2004
Venue: NULL

Leonard Slatkin reflects on his last Last Night of the Proms

It is hard to believe that almost four years as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra have passed. To say that this has been an extraordinary time for me is a major understatement. But through it all, there has always been an excitement that is almost unparalleled in music. I am talking, of course, about the Last Night of the Proms.

What began for me as a not so simple taking over of British tradition tragically turned into something else altogether. It is not necessary here to recount the events of mid-September 2001 except to clear up a few misconceptions that some listeners and readers have had.

First, for the original program, there was really no change from the format as it had stood from about the mid-1950s. If one goes back and looks at the actual program as planned, we find the usual mix of light works along with a couple of pieces of a more serious nature. Frederica von Stade was to have been the vocal soloist and it had been both of our intentions for her and one British singer to do the honors during “Rule Britannia”, a piece that has been a bone of contention for these four years, and probably before. I had looked forward to preserving most of the traditions of this unique event and was deeply saddened that this could not be.

Of course, there were a few who thought we should have gone on with the original program, even after the September 11 tragedy. I had offered to withdraw from the concert but that was quickly dismissed. The directors of the Proms, along with Rosemary Gent and me, worked out what we all believed was a suitable alternative for that evening. And I will never forget one minute of that extraordinary night. All those in attendance singing “The Star Spangled Banner”, the sound of weeping during Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and the solitary voice in the arena who cried out “God Bless America” during one of my spoken moments.

I did not know enough about the history of the Last Night to understand how passionate so many persons were about how the concert should proceed. But I did know that many people at the BBC felt that there was now an opportunity to alter the concert, which had been mostly the same for about 50 years. Now the event was truly global, and there were strong feelings that the presentation had become almost exclusionary. So with the link up to the Parks in different parts of the UK, and the world-wide audience listening and watching, alterations to the sequence of the last half-hour or so were made for the 2002 performance.

It was a work in progress, and probably the Last Night will always be just that. All of us were feeling our way in new territory. I felt that some of it worked and some of it did not. But the decisions to make the changes did not come from me. I was simply the messenger. Others would know much more about how the Last Night should progress than I.

Last year, I think we got it about right. The Sea Songs, with the inclusion of some new bits, worked well. I did not miss the clarinet cadenza, but if we had done this two years prior, I had some tricks up my sleeve during this moment. The chorus taking over the part where the soloist had entered seemed to have great spirit and kept the focus on the music. I had a good time with the speech. Only a few complaints were heard.

And so we come to this season’s Last Night. It is not very different from the 2003 presentation. The usual mixture of serious with light music will be heard. Sir Thomas Allen will be on hand but his role in the Sea Songs has not been determined as of this writing. We revisit some of the Proms themes of this season. There is one nod to the events of three years ago in that I will play Sousa’s Liberty Bell March, one of the works we were supposed to do back then. I will not have started on the speech until the day before the concert. It remains to be seen what surprises the Arena has in store for me.

And it is my final concert as Chief Conductor of the BBCSO. In some ways, I wish that this tenure had lasted a bit longer. During the last season, it seemed as if the orchestra and I were hitting our stride. There were performances that really soared and I believe that we were communicating on a much closer level. However, it is time to say goodbye and what better forum for that than the Last Night. I hope that these four years have produced some good musical memories for musicians and listeners alike. I know they have for me.

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