NSO's copy-cat `Prom' night is a hoot

Review: Just like in London, everyone - from musicians to soloists to singers to audience - gets into the act.

May 21, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Among the symptoms of acute anglophilia is a desire to attend the "Last Night of the Proms" - the annual finale to the "Promenade Concerts" at London's Royal Albert Hall. At every last night of the century-old "Proms" season, concert decorum is abandoned in favor of unbridled patriotism and good humor. No wonder it's one of the hottest tickets in the world.

So British is this event that it's hard to imagine the podium ever being entrusted to an American. But that will happen for the first time in September, when BBC Symphony Orchestra music director Leonard Slatkin gets the honor. Fortunately for Brit fans in our area, he's also music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, which wrapped up a three-week British Festival by re-creating "Last Night of the Proms" Saturday in a Union Jack-festooned Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The audience took a while to get the idea, but, by evening's end, spirits were flying high. Slatkin succeeded in having the crowd drown out the orchestra with frenzied rhythmic clapping in the "Hornpipe" from Henry Wood's "Fantasia on British Sea Songs," a "Last Night" staple since 1905. And quite a few stalwart voices joined the excellent Choral Arts Society (sporting silly hats and U.K. colors) in a rousing "Rule Britannia."

My favorite moment came earlier in that "Fantasia," with the playing of "Tom Bowling," Charles Didbin's lovely ballad about the kindhearted sailor whose "soul has gone aloft." Principal cellist David Hardy infused it with melting warmth and genuine sentiment, as chorus members, fully in tune with "Last Night" antics all evening, pretended to wipe away tears.

Slatkin led vibrant accounts of evocative works by Malcolm Arnold, Albert Ketelby and William Walton. Vaughan Williams' ethereal "The Lark Ascending" featured Hilary Hahn as a graceful soloist. In a very Slatkin-esque move, there was also a jolt of modernity, the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Four-Horned Fandango." Four NSO horn players tackled the brooding, restless score with considerable finesse.

The orchestra's strings shone in Percy Grainger's perfect arrangement of "Danny Boy," which Slatkin molded eloquently. It provided a delicious calm before the ensuing storm of patriotic fervor.

This winning substitute for the original "Last Night of the Proms" ought to become an NSO tradition.

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