By Hugh Lawson
LONDON (Reuters) - American conductor Marin Alsop brought the Last Night of the Proms, one of Britain's biggest musical celebrations, to a close on Saturday night with a call for greater inclusion after becoming the first woman to lead the concert in its 119-year history.
"I'm still quite shocked that it can be 2013 and there can still be firsts for women," she told the flag-waving crowd of more than 6,000, during an evening of music ranging from Handel and Wagner to the world premiere of a piece by 33-year-old composer Anna Clyne.
The crowd at the event that ends a summer-long season of concerts ranging from Hollywood movie tunes to an entire Wagner "Ring" cycle, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, welcomed the call.
"It's about time, too," said John Philpott, 59, of London, crouching on the floor of the arena in the interval after a performance of Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending" with British classical music badboy and soccer fan Nigel Kennedy on the violin.
Alsop also called for music not to be put to one side in tough times economically around the world.
"Music and art cannot be pushed to the margins. They have to be front and center," she said, drawing one of the louder roars of approval from the audience at the event.
It takes its name from the "Prommers" who get to stand right in front of the stage for the cheapest prices in the cavernous, oval-shaped Royal Albert Hall.
Alsop told BBC television earlier in the day that her gender had never been an issue in her work as a conductor although plenty of doors were still shut to women in the professional world.
"I've never felt any resistance from musicians. Musicians are there to be the best they can be. If you come prepared and passionate and committed as a conductor, that's all they want," she told the BBC's morning show.
Philpott, a four-time veteran of the final evening of the two-month-long festival sponsored by Britain's national broadcaster, the BBC, said he also enjoyed the increasingly international atmosphere of the Proms.
He described a previous Last Night spent up in the highest seats in the hall: "All of us were up there waving our different flags. It was bloody marvellous."
David Savage, 47, attending for the first time while on a visit from his adopted country Romania, also said the international flavour of the evening was what made it special.
"All of this being shared by all these people is the best thing," he said, sitting with his Romanian wife and brother-in-law wearing hard hats in the blue, yellow and red of the Romanian flag.
Kennedy brought the evening alive after the interval with a cheeky performance of Vittorio Monti's "Csardas", based on a Hungarian folk dance, stomping the floor in his running shoes, popping a balloon with his bow and shouting "Yeah!" between dizzying runs on his violin.
He also brought a soccer theme to the most British of musical evenings, coming on in an Aston Villa football club shirt and waving his bow mock-accusingly at an audience member waving a rival Chelsea flag at him.
American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato carried on the theme, leading the audience in a rousing performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone", a song sung at every match at Liverpool football club, before the crowd took over for the traditional British-themed finale of "Rule, Britannia!", "Land of Hope and Glory" and Elgar's "Jerusalem".
Just before launching into the final numbers, Alsop turned to the hall and said: "You're the dream audience of all time."
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Eric Walsh)