By Kirsten Donovan
(Reuters) - American conductor Marin Alsop brought the 120th season of the Proms, the world's biggest and longest running music festival, to a close in London on Saturday, with an acknowledgement of the power of music to help overcome inequality.
"It's clear inequality is one of the greatest challenges facing us today," said Alsop, who returned to the podium to lead the BBC Symphony Orchestra through the traditional Last Night of the Proms celebrations two years after becoming the first woman to conduct the concert.
"Music is not going to solve these issues, but music has the power to change the hearts and minds of even the most hardened dissenter. We've seen that here at the Proms."
In a fitting finale to a season that has seen the piano take center stage, 23-year old British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor opened the evening with a intense rendition of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2.
In the cavernous, oval-shaped Albert Hall, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann continued the final evening's eclectic musical program with a selection of Puccini arias, including 'Nessun Dorma', while Danielle de Niese, described by the New York Times as "opera's coolest soprano", led an audience sing-along of a medley of songs from The Sound of Music in celebration of the film's 50th anniversary.
The traditional rousing finale saw the near six thousand flag-waving capacity audience singing heartily along to the British songs 'Rule Britannia', 'Land of Hope and Glory' and 'Jerusalem', with Kaufmann becoming the first German to sing 'Rule Britannia' in the history of the Last Night of the Proms performances.
"I never get nervous...(but) here I would probably say yes, because everyone in the hall and everyone watching at home knows the words better than I," Kaufmann told the BBC's Breakfast program earlier in the day.
At the same time audiences joined in from open-air 'Proms in the Park' events from London's Hyde Park and venues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The evening ended with a Benjamin Britten arrangement of the British National Anthem and audiences in the Albert Hall and the parks linking hands for a raucous version of 'Auld Lang Syne'.
"It crosses cultures and social barriers," said Corin Burr from London, in the queue for the event. "It's what (Proms founder) Sir Henry Wood was all about."
The concerts, arranged and sponsored by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) take their name from the "Prommers" who get to stand right in front of the stage for the cheapest prices of just five pounds sterling ($7.71).
Garry High from Guildford, a town near London, smartly dressed in a musical-scored bowtie and Union Jack cufflinks, was attending his 35th Last Night of the Proms. "I first came in 1976 as a student," he said. "It's a national event, really enjoyable, the atmosphere is different every year."
(Reporting by Kirsten Donovan; Editing by Diane Craft)