As the century drew to a close last night, pictures from the "American Century" flashed across big screens set up near the Lincoln Memorial--anxious immigrants, scared soldiers, tap-dancing entertainers, construction workers, celebrities and other examples of American iconography. Compiled by director Steven Spielberg, the 20-minute film titled "The Unfinished Journey" tried to capture the country's agony as well as its glory, with the live grace note of an unknown elderly couple exchanging a kiss at the close of their turn as narrators.

However bombastic the film may seem to partygoers in the year 3000, it led up dramatically to a speech by President Clinton and the eagerly awaited fireworks display that climaxed the "America's Millennium" gala, a three-hour smorgasbord of entertainment that drew thousands to the Mall to celebrate the New Year. Indeed, all across town, America's music sounded--from gospel to folk, Vegas to Broadway, opera, jazz and rap--as hundreds of performers brought in the new century in song.

The Mall gala often seemed designed more for television (on CBS) than for those who were actually present, as only the 3,000 ticket-holders in the bleachers near the Lincoln Memorial could actually see the stage. The masses thronged around the Reflecting Pool could see the performers only on big screens, which at times--as when Will Smith's "Will2K" video was playing--meant that audience members stood in line to see television.

Nonetheless, it was probably the first time Abraham Lincoln got to watch a "Soul Train" line. As 30 dancers leapt around a stage built for the event, his marble eminence looked on.

Smith also got President Clinton to pump his fist in a "Raise the Roof" dance moment. "Yo, bro," he called to the commander in chief.

Thousands of folks hoping to get a glimpse of Smith or Trisha Yearwood found themselves light-years away from the headliners, waiting for at least an hour to get through security checkpoints. "I don't mind," said Patrice Haffeman of Frederick. "I'd rather feel safe."

Others were not so sanguine. "They should at least tell us what's going on," said Eldred Deklerk, a police trainer from Cape Town, South Africa. "Some people are giving up and going home." By 11 p.m., the crowd was pushing down the hurricane fencing to get in, according to television reports.

At least they didn't have to listen to commercials, as the cocooners at home did. And even the elite ticket-holders found themselves waiting in line, trying to get up the stairs to their seats as performers were trying to get down.

Across town, the superb mezzo-soprano of Washington's own Denyce Graves soared into the far reaches of the National City Christian Church before an audience of 700. Wearing a stunning coat-dress of white and gold brocade and accompanied by pianist Brian Zeger, she sang a versatile mix of classical arias, jazz and spirituals. Combined with her now-earthy, now-velvet tone, her luminous stage presence and gracious song introductions clearly transported her audience, who seemed to respond to her every note.

Her most striking numbers were an aria from Handel's opera "Amadigi di Gaula," which she performed with spectacular ornamentation, and her signature tune, Camille Saint-Saens' "Mon Coeur s'Ouvre a ta Voix" ("My Heart Opens at Thy Voice"), which brought wild applause.

In Landover, there was a big party at the Jericho City of Praise church--in the name of Jesus--with laser lights, a live band and bellowing gospel singers. And just across the Beltway, at US Airways Arena, Ebenezer AME Church drew more than 10,000 people to its "Holy Ghost Praise Party." The old basketball floor trembled as people rocked in their seats and sang an old song titled "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus."

On the Mall, the lineup at the millennium gala was eclectic, to say the least, too often saddled with a tired variety-show feeling. The combination of pop heartthrob Usher, looking uncomfortable in a tuxedo, with aging folkie Kris Kristofferson for a rendition of "The Weight" was the oddest of several odd pairings during the evening. To add to the made-for-TV-feeling, the announcer broke into a powerful rendition of "I'll Take You There" by BeBe Winans and Patti Austin with an inappropriate "Only on CBS!"

During lulls in the show--and there were many--Smith hammed it up in front of the bleachers to the delight of the ticket-holding crowd. Inexplicably, producer Quincy Jones failed to use Smith much beyond the opening and the closing, a mistake considering how adept the actor is at impromptu crowd-pleasing.

Not far from the mall, Billy Taylor presided in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater as the first century of jazz gave way to the third millennium. The sold-out concert, beamed across the land by National Public Radio, initially found Taylor leading a septet composed of the evening's special guests, including tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, vibist Stefon Harris, guitarist Russell Malone and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. The band opened with "At la Carousel," an upbeat charmer brightened by dashing solos from Taylor and Harris, tempered by the soulful attack of Turrentine and Malone and brilliantly illuminated by Blanchard's brassy fireworks.

"Soul Sister," another Taylor composition, featured the pianist's trio alone onstage, conjuring a relaxed, after-hours groove punctuated by bassist Chip Jackson's inventive and invigorating handiwork. Drummer Winard Harper, a new member of Taylor's trio, then used sticks, mallets, rattlers and bells to create a festive symphony of percussion on Taylor's engaging Latin jazz piece "Titoro." The band leader's open suite for piano followed. And though the trio arrangement was pared down to the elegant essentials, the piece nevertheless managed to encapsulate much of the history of jazz piano with great verve and finesse.

Following the second set, the entire audience was invited to don party garb (provided to each ticket-holder) and welcome in the new year at a bash in the grand foyer.

Over at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, some men wore suits, some wore tuxedos. One man standing outside the lobby was in a tuxedo with sneakers--prepared for all eventualities.

The National Symphony Orchestra's New Year's Eve concert was equal parts Old World musicmaking and New World slapstick. While grand divas Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman were down on the Mall, NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin chose to spend the evening with family and friends--his wife, soprano Linda Hohenfeld, and old chums from his salad days, pianists Jeffrey Siegel and Joseph Kalichstein.

Plus several thousand listeners and a passel of journalists. This was a very weird concert, weird and wonderful. Unlike the usual New Year's Eve concerts around the world that model themselves on the famous Vienna New Year's Day event--dour Viennese soberly listening to champagne music from the dead Strausses--Slatkin gave it a local twist.

The maestro, who marked the millennium by conducting the New Year's Eve concert for the first time since he arrived at the NSO, announced from the stage that he would have none of the usual waltzes: too European, too not-American. But he began with music of France. Why? Because he wanted to.

The centerpiece of the program was Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," a collection of light character sketches devoted to a baker's dozen of nature's wild creatures (this is the suite for which the universally beloved "The Swan" was composed). Slatkin dropped the Ogden Nash poems that have become attached to the various movements and substituted new verses by 14 prominent journalists from The Washington Post, ABC News and the Weekly Standard. It was a one-time event, he promised. The texts, kept under wraps until the event itself, stole the orchestra's thunder. But that was the point.

Post Publisher Donald E. Graham stayed above the fray, reminding the audience of nobler things. ABC's John Cochran, who read verses for absentee versifiers, contributed his own, a philosophical query about the relative ego size of journalists and conductors. The Post's Henry Allen, who had the "Cuckoo" movement, chose a poetical allusion--"In Xanadu did Cuckoo Kahn, a stately pleasure nest decree . . ." And his colleague Tony Kornheiser mockingly went for the jugular with a discussion of local fossils (he began with Sens. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, and ended with himself).

Slatkin, always a masterly programmer, arranged the evening as if to say, "Relax, the modern orchestra has been bug-free for 300 years." He played soothing music--Faure's "Pavane"--and music that looked back to this century's forgotten technological marvels--Leroy Anderson's "The Typewriter" and "The Syncopated Clock." He played the typewriter himself--"The hardest thing I've had to do in four years." Hohenfeld sang songs by Jerome Kern, and Siegel and Kalichstein were the pianists in the Saint-Saens.

But no audience will leave without the New Year's hit of all time, the Strauss "Radetzky" March. They applauded until Slatkin gave it to them, as an encore. They clapped in time, as audiences have for decades, a small nod to tradition before heading out into the brisk night to greet a new century.

No one would mistake the Black Cat on 14th Street NW for the Kennedy Center, but the post-punk club glittered last night, with strands of tiny white lights hung from the ceiling and the bar. The entertainment was equally grunge-free: Peaches O'Dell and Her Black Cat Orchestra, a 10-piece combo that specializes in songs originally recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra and the Andrews Sisters.

Fewer than 50 patrons were in attendance when the orchestra began playing shortly after 10 p.m., but the dance floor was nearly full an hour later, a credible turnout for a club that reaches capacity when a hot alternative-rock band draws 500 fans. While the first couple to dance was dressed as if for a Fred Astaire movie, others wore the club's customary black-on-black uniform.

O'Dell promised to return in a "tackier" outfit as her group finished its first set and yielded to the Hidden Persuaders, a minimalist trio that performed such lounge standards as "Moon River" and "The Look of Love."

At midnight, after the stunning flash that lit up the Washington Monument, the Mall gala continued along its gumbo-like way. Following the inevitable "Fanfare for the Common Man" and a children's choir leading "America the Beautiful," a panoply of notables came out to read quotes from other notables. They included a surprise visit from Elizabeth Taylor (dark-haired again), and people like Edward James Olmos quoting Ronald Reagan and Atallah Shabazz quoting Ceasar Chavez.

Will Smith was seen leaving around then, carrying a child and accompanying his wife. The show wasn't over--it was scheduled to continue with the cast of "Stomp" and Irish singer Bono, plus a lot more fireworks--but for many, the night was over and the new century was underway.

Cecelia Porter, Philip Kennicott, Mike Joyce, Hamil R. Harris, Mark Jenkins and Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Wild, wild Will: Will Smith hams it up during the opening of the millennium celebration.

CAPTION: Leonard Slatkin keeps time with pianist Joseph Kalichstein at the NSO concert.

CAPTION: Billy Taylor on piano and Chip Jackson on bass back up Marlena Shaw at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

CAPTION: Memorial millennium: Most of the crowd that thronged to the Mall got to see the performers--such as Kenny Rogers and Don McLean--only on video screens.