Leonard Slatkin on Proms 2004

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Reviewed by: Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed: 3 July, 2004
Venue: NULL

It is July and that can only mean one thing: another Proms season is upon us. For me this will be a particularly meaningful year, as it will mark the end of my tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And what better way to go out than with four programs that hold great promise as regards the repertoire.

Although there is always controversy over the content of the Last Night, usually the First Night presents no problems for the audience. A few years ago, the Proms began a policy of including an instrumental soloist on the program, replacing the usually all-choral evening. This year we are trying something a bit different. The choral work is hardly one of the traditional blockbusters usually heard, but rather the rarely played The Music Makers by Elgar. The work is a kind of English answer to Ein Heldenleben of Richard Strauss, in that the composer actually quotes other pieces that he wrote during the course of his compositional career. But it is a lovely piece and seems to set a nice mood for the season.

We also dedicate the newly restored Albert Hall organ. It is featured in all three works on the program. In fact, it is not the orchestra that will sound the first notes; the organ’s keys and pedals will be heard in the Toccata in D minor of Bach, played by Martin Neary. Then the orchestra takes up the Fugue in the version prepared by Proms founder Sir Henry Wood. The organ joins the fun toward the end. To close it is Holst’s The Planets, minus the recent Pluto by Colin Matthews. I still prefer Holst’s fading voices at the end!

A few nights later we have the world premiere of a piece by Zhou Long. It’s called The Immortal, and is one of a number of works in which the connections between the East and West are explored this Proms season. Jean-Yves Thibaudet is heard in the Liszt Piano Concerto No.2. We end with that largest of orchestral behemoths, Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. I must confess that I truly love this piece. The architectural symmetry and sheer virtuosity of writing is astonishing. And it is a lot of fun to conduct.

I do not return until September 1, which is also the occasion of my 60th birthday – it is appropriate that the orchestra now wears all black as its concert attire! Some of you will remember that several Proms seasons ago, I presented a version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in which each picture was orchestrated by a different arranger. Well, here comes volume two. Even more exotic than the first, we will hear from no fewer than eleven orchestrators, but not Ravel. The performance will be preceded by a demonstration of a few passages in which we hear the same music in three or four different orchestral dressings.

I wanted to do a piece by an American who has not been represented at the Proms before. Surprisingly, this seems to be the first major work of John Corigliano played at the Proms. We will perform his astonishing Clarinet Concerto with Michael Collins. This is probably the finest work in the form since the piece by Copland. And with antiphonal horns scattered throughout the Albert Hall, it should be quite a performance. We start with the Gamelan section of Britten’s Prince of the Pagodas, which fits the East-West theme.

As for the Last Night, well it falls on September 11. I do not plan anything of the somber nature from three years ago, but there will be a reference in the form of one piece that was originally scheduled for that night but had to be withdrawn. This is the Liberty Bell March of Sousa, more commonly known to many of you as the theme music for Monty Python. But the actual bell, which is in Philadelphia, has great symbolic meaning for us. I will say something about it but that is all the attention that I will draw to the events of 9/11. Tom Allen is on hand for Vaughan Williams, Gilbert and Sullivan and some songs from musicals, and the first half of the program is a bit more serious than usual.

There is not much to say about the final 25 minutes. Everyone has made up their minds as to whether or not we are doing the right thing. I have enjoyed adding music from Wales, Ireland and Scotland to the Sea Song mix. This concert is now an international event, seen and heard by millions worldwide. When Sir Malcolm Sargent altered the formula in the 50s, he set the stage for anyone who leads this night. I would imagine that whoever conducts next season’s Last Night will find something different as well. But that is what makes this program so special. There is truly nothing like it in the world.

It has been my privilege to preside over this institution for the past four years. The time has had its ups and downs, but I would not have traded the experience for anything. And to be able to conduct about twenty Proms concerts over the last few years has been a dream come true. I will miss the audience and all that goes into this very special world. However, this is not my last Prom, by any means. Plans are in the works for several appearances in the future. But for now, I look forward to going down the “Bull Run” a few more times this summer. I hope all of you enjoy our time together as well.

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