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Slatkin and the NSO, As If He Never Left

It was good to see Leonard Slatkin, former music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, back at the podium of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, as a guest conductor. At the Friday night concert, he seemed in the same vigor and good spirits he showed in an appearance last season with the NSO, two months after suffering a heart attack while conducting in Rotterdam. We have been following Slatkin's work since he left Washington, under slightly dissatisfied circumstances, and were happy to see him help the Detroit Symphony Orchestra weather financial trouble and obviously endear himself to his new audience by taking up the banner of the Detroit Tigers this fall, as well as gaining the trust of the musicians. We have also been watching, via online video, some of his concerts leading the Orchestre national de Lyon, where he has been music director since the beginning of this season.

Slatkin conducts with confidence and incisive, uncompromising beliefs about the score: so why did this concert remind me so much of the bad old days of the end of Slatkin's tenure with the NSO? Part of it had to do with the programming, which was like many concerts he offered as music director. One contemporary piece -- in this case, British composer Anna Clyne's <<rewind<<, a short, electronically assisted meditation on the unfolding of music in time -- was the draw that piqued my interest, paired with syrupy selections of sleepy Romanticism, the first cello concerto of Saint-Saëns (op. 33) and Rachmaninov's third symphony (op. 44), pieces that are frankly just not all that interesting to hear again. During his time in Washington, Slatkin's choices in contemporary music were hit and miss, as he seemed to favor less dissonant styles that would not further alienate the NSO's conservative audience -- grumbling that he noted wryly when he took the microphone to introduce Clyne's piece at the opening of this concert. Since appeasing the audience is not necessarily his concern anymore, why could Slatkin not instead present something like the much more exciting program he led earlier this month with the Pittsburgh Symphony, a selection of unusual pieces featuring orchestra members as soloists? Jean Françaix's L'horloge de flore and Walter Piston's viola concerto? Yes, please!

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Leonard Slatkin returns to NSO as guest conductor (Washington Post, November 12)
Those criticisms aside, there was much to enjoy, especially in the Clyne piece, a repetition of two musical ideas at various speeds and variations, leading to a climax during which a recording of the performance is played, backwards, above the orchestra. The piece diverted the ear with a minimum of ideas: lots of groaning brass glissandi, percussive fortissimo strikes, and glints of bowed xylophone. Cellist Gautier Capuçon was a good match for the saccharine bon-bon that is the Saint-Saëns first concerto, not heard from the NSO since 1998, when Slatkin last programmed it here. He excels at extracting the sweetness from Romantic melodies, although the faster passages sounded more clipped and approximated than daring, never quite catching fire as they should. Even with some of the principal players sitting out this compressed one-movement concerto, including concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and cellist David Hardy, the NSO played with a contained, pretty lyricism, hitting a high point in the cute miniature dance movement and the allusions to Tristan und Isolde, then less than a decade old, in the slow section. Capuçon, who could have a side career making easy listening discs of the "Classical Adagios" variety, then offered a treacly encore of the "Méditation" from Massenet's Thaïs.

Most of Rachmaninov's music, hard as I try to appreciate it, leaves me cold, and all throughout his third symphony, it was hard to overcome the disbelief that this music could have been composed in the 1930s. The NSO played it with tender lyricism, all smoldering earnestness in the main cello theme and chattering mischief in the Mime references to Wagner's Ring, with nice enough horn and violin solos in the slow movement. Slatkin at least makes his Rachmaninov tolerable by never allowing the piece to wallow in its own escapist fantasies, although his quick beat always seemed just a hair ahead of the players, yielding a frantic, jagged edge to the third movement, with its almost-corny American Western air. This was the other reminder of the final years of Slatkin's time leading the NSO, a sense that conductor and orchestra just did not quite see eye to eye, in spite of an obvious mutual respect.

This concert will be repeated tonight (November 12, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Music director Christoph Eschenbach, after a long absence, returns to the podium next week, in concerts with violinist Leonidas Kavakos (November 17 to 19). Sounding slightly guilty, Eschenbach addressed a message to the NSO faithful in the program, explaining that he has been on tour with the Vienna Philharmonic this fall.


Perfect Pitch said...

I've been a fan of Slatkin for years now, I was very pleased to see him return!! :)

jfl said...

"Slatkin and the NSO, As If He Never Left"

" [in] vigor and good spirits..."

So you mean to say: "Slatkin and the NSO not at all as if he never left." ?


Charles T. Downey said...

@jfl Hee hee.