- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2001

LONDON — "Last Night of the Proms" claims to be the most-watched classical musical event on Earth, a night of tongue-in-cheek jingoism that combines the serious and the silly in one jolly singalong.

Besides the 6,000 people attending at Albert Hall, 100,000 watch "Last Night" on giant TV screens around Britain; plus, there are the radio, TV and Webcast audiences around the world.

No wonder that, in his debut year at the Proms, conductor Leonard Slatkin admits to a case of last-night nerves.

Chatting before rehearsal at BBC's Maida Vale studios recently, Mr. Slatkin said he had met with the orchestra committee to discuss the last-night concert set for Saturday (Sept. 15).

He asked whether he should worry about the boisterous audience, but says he was told: "No, they're more worried about you than you should be about them."

Mr. Slatkin, who has been music director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington since 1996, cleared his summer calendar to concentrate on the Proms. He became principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra last year, and directed the first of his six Promenade concerts on July 20. He's the first American to conduct the last-night concert.

"Probably the last night is the event of most interest only because of the expectation, both from myself and the audience because nobody knows what I am going to do," Mr. Slatkin says.

"They are worried am I going to alter the format, am I going to Americanize it, and they say that not in a flattering way. And I say 'yes, I'm going to Americanize it,' and I'm saying it in a flattering way."

One obvious bit of Americana for this year's last night is Charles Ives' jokey "Variations on America" — the tune known to Britons as "God Save the Queen."

There's no risk that the piece will offend the audience, which traditionally brims with tongue-in-cheek patriotism, roaring along with "Land of Hope and Glory," "Rule Britannia" and "Jerusalem."

Last-night television cameras focus on the "prommers," the music fanatics who pay $4.35 each for standing-room space. Many wear costumes, a few carry teddy bears and other props, and there's always a strong section with duck calls to add a rhythmic "quack quack" to Henry Wood's "Fantasia on British Sea Songs," a pillar of the last-night finale.

One of the conductor's biggest tests on last night is making a humorous speech, which was always a triumph for Mr. Slatkin's predecessor, the ebullient Andrew Davis, who has moved on to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Hoping to get the audience on his side, Mr. Slatkin thinks he may go outside to greet the prommers before the concert.

"A whole bunch of them sent me a card after the first night — in fact, 200 signatures of people who just come every night and stand there for a couple of hours," Mr. Slatkin says.

"What a staunch group of people. It's wonderful. There is no audience like that, there is no place like that," he says of the venerable Albert Hall.

"Yes, acoustically it's not ideal, and yeah, even though they are saying they are going to have a ventilation system it's not going to be air conditioning, so it will still be stifling in there forever. Yes, the organ is in desperate need of being blown up and reconditioned.

"But where else in the world, night after night for eight weeks, can you go and have the quality and variety and just the sense of occasion without the pretentiousness of, say, a Lucerne or a Salzburg?"

Though he says he revels in London life, finding it a great city for walking, he admits missing the close contact with baseball scores, particularly the fate of his beloved St. Louis Cardinals — a passion born of his 17 years with the St. Louis Symphony. And his conversation easily veers from music to a passionate denunciation of American League rules.

Mr. Slatkin is an unabashed admirer of 20th century English music — he mentions Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Michael Tippett and Gustav Holst.

"I had always wanted a post with an English orchestra, but this is not the one I thought I would get. I thought this was so bound by conventions and tradition that it wouldn't be looking to someone like me," he says.

"I'm having a great time. I'm hoping we'll have a lengthy tenure together.""I had always wanted a post with an English orchestra, but this is not the one I thought I would get."


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