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The National Symphony Orchestra

[Photo of Leonard Slatkin] My First Last Night - Leonard Slatkin

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.