My First Last Night – Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed: 10 September, 2002

It was supposed to be a concert like no other. It was supposed to be special. It was supposed to break with tradition.

It did, but not like anyone could have dreamt.

For over a year, I had waited for September 15th. On that night, I would stand on the podium in the Albert Hall and lead the BBC Symphony, Chorus, Singers and an audience of almost 7,000 in the Last Night of the Proms. No American had ever done this before and only one other non-UK citizen had been in that position.

I was on my way to the studios at Maida Vale on the afternoon of September 11 to begin work on my speech for the concert. We had done a performance of the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony the night before and I was feeling exhilarated. Lots of jokes, puns and other ideas were coming at me right and left.As I stepped into a taxi, I could vaguely make out the voices on the radio, which the driver had on at the time. Words like “twin towers, Pentagon, terrorists” were coming from the announcers. I asked the driver to turn it up and, like almost everyone else, was taken to a place I did not want to be.

My mobile could not get through to my house or office in Washington. My wife and son were there. He would have been in school. We live about 20 minutes from the site of the destruction. When I got to the BBC, I tried calling but to no avail. Were they all right? What about the members of my orchestra? The Kennedy Center is about 5 minutes away from the Pentagon. What were they doing that day?

It was on the radios at the studios. It was on the computers.But there are no televisions, so the images were not emblazoned in my mind’s eye yet. Still stunned, I actually started to write the speech. Every five minutes I changed my mind about what do say, what to do, and where to be. No one had any answers. It was time to get back to my flat and get to my family.

About 7 in the evening, the phone lines began to clear up.By now, I had seen that horrific sight on television far too many times. When I got through, assured that everyone was fine, I had a lot of decisions to make, not the least of which was whether or not I should conduct this concert. My wife felt that I must, that there was a reason that I was in London at this particular time.

As the evening progressed, I was in constant communication with Nicholas Kenyon. We were to begin rehearsals the next morning. We both agreed that the traditions of the past were not appropriate for this Last Night. Some were to have quite the opposite sentiment, as I would learn later. But we did not yet have a plan for the program other than realizing that some of the more frivolous items should be scrapped.

As the orchestra assembled for the rehearsal, I told them that we had not yet decided on the appropriate course of action for the concert but asked for a moment of silence for all those who perished, remembering that this was not just an attack on Americans. We then did what we do best, played music. The first piece was the overture to La Forza del Destino, by Verdi, certainly appropriate and one that we knew would stay on the concert. As we ended, Nick stood behind me and asked for a pause in the rehearsal so we could discuss the other items for the concert that was now just three days away.

The finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was the main choice of the BBC. I interjected the four spirituals from Sir Michael Tippett’s Child of our Time. The combination of American Spirituals set to an English composer’s music seemed just right. We did not know if the evening’s soloist, Frederica von Stade, would be able to fly from the States to be with us. Later that day we knew that would not be possible.

The decisions about the traditional patriotic works, which conclude the concert, were not easily made. I had looked forward to doing them and feeling the joy and sense of occasion that makes this night so special. However, it was just not the right thing to do. This was not a time for isolation.The Last Night celebrates the end of what, for me, is the greatest festival of music in the world. It is for the people and because it is now seen and heard all over the world, this was the time for the music to make a statement of brotherhood.So Land of Hope and Glory, the Sea Songs and Rule Britannia would have to be set aside for this night. Only Jerusalem would remain.

Word was passed on to the Prommers, as it was felt that they would best reflect the sentiments of the public. They would have to see to it that everything was kept under control. No balloons, no klaxons, no banners. There were no complaints, only understanding and support, for which I will always be grateful.

The question of anthems came up. Usually they are played at the end of the concert. I wanted to start with both the UK and US pieces. Some of the musicians felt that we should not play either but, ultimately, we put them at the top. Radio and television wanted to know what I was going to say and asked for a script. I do not usually speak this way, preferring to be off the cuff. But I jotted down a couple of things and handed them in.

By the time of the concert, all the details had been sorted out. I have never experienced the feeling of nervousness that I hear so much about, but this was as close as I have come. As I walked onto the platform, the feeling in the hall was overwhelming. Everyone knew that they had to be there. The audience had been handed the words to the Star Spangled Banner and when we started, I have never experienced my own country’s anthem sung with such meaning and feeling. Our words are about an attack on American soil from the past. Now they had a new meaning.People who had experienced this in Britain could understand this in a way that few Americans, until four days prior, could not. God Save the Queen felt as if the bond of the two peoples was more solid than ever.

For me, personally, Barber’s Adagio for Strings was the emotional catharsis of the evening. In the States we play this in the way that Nimrod is used here. Neither work was intended for solemn occasions but the musical content has made it so. I had asked the audience to refrain from applause but a few probably did not hear me. It did not matter. I was reduced to tears and was grateful for a few minutes to recover before the next item.

Yes, I spoke. Three times actually. And I had a script, which I discarded after the first sentence. This was a time for words from the heart, not a piece of paper. I hope I said the right things. There was one moment when I used a light pun that I had planned on originally. When I finished, someone from the Arena shouted “God Bless America”.

I came back to the dressing room, and did two things that I do not normally do. I shut the door and I cried. My mobile began to ring and it was my wife and son, who had heard the concert on the radio at home. They were supposed to have been with me on this special night. They were.

Since that time a year ago, things have been put in somewhat different perspective. I received hundreds of letters and messages supporting what we had done. There were also a few that gave a quite opposite set of opinions.As we made decisions of what we would do this year, those thoughts have come to the fore. I wanted to do the traditions of the Last Night, but many believed that this was the time to change. So we will keep most everything as it was, with a few minor alterations. With the furor that has been written over, especially, Rule Britannia, I think it best that everyone reserve judgement until they hear what we are going to do.There have been many alterations to the sequence over the years and we will continue to celebrate the positive aspects of this night. It still ends this most wonderful of festivals and that is what is important.

So I still hope that this will be a concert like no other and that it will be very special. Last year will always be the most moving musical event in my life. This year I hope will be the most joyous, filled with optimism, glory and music.

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