A lively performance, a livelier party

NSO honors Slatkin on his 60th birthday


September 28, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

I have some really nice friends," Leonard Slatkin said. Pretty talented, too.

Fifteen of them - from Emanuel Ax to Pinchas Zukerman - joined the National Symphony Orchestra to celebrate Slatkin's 60th birthday in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Sunday night. A lively party, at the very least.

Entering his ninth season as NSO music director, Slatkin is worth celebrating for several reasons beyond the age milestone (actually reached on Sept. 1). He has steadily upgraded the orchestra and boldly expanded its repertoire, while building a strong bond with the public.

His NSO legacy includes a remarkable track record for commissioning new American works (62 pieces by 57 composers so far) and creating intriguing festivals, not to mention valuable educational initiatives.

Add in his pre-Washington career, including a 17-year stint at the helm of the Saint Louis Symphony, and it's no wonder he has made so many "really nice friends" along the way.

All of Sunday's guests go way back with Slatkin, some to his student days. They were fitted into a program that suggested a commercial classical radio station play-list these days - a movement from something, a little talk, a movement from something else, more talk, a pops item. It was a go-with-the-flow kind of night.

Among the easily digestible doses were the finales of two violin concertos. Midori dashed brilliantly through Mendelssohn's (Zukerman conducted neatly enough). Joshua Bell really poured on the steam in the excerpt from Bruch's G minor Concerto, with Slatkin getting an equally fervent response from the NSO.

Five fiddlers divvied up Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins in B minor - Itzhak Perlman, Elmar Oliveira, Midori, Bell and Zukerman (he and Perlman took a turn conducting). The performance had a little seat-of-the-pants aspect to it, but also some terrific warmth.

Perlman conducted the other complete concerto on the bill, Mozart's for two pianos - and, in this case, six pianists. Joseph Kalichstein and Jeffrey Siegel were hard-edged in the opening, but all was grace and elegance as the next two duos took over: Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Marielle Labeque, Ax and Labeque's sister, Katia.

Composer/pianist Michel Camilo brought down the house with his kinetic Tropical Jam, which Slatkin and NSO seemed to have as much fun with; Siegel took the spotlight for a snappy account of Gershwin's `I Got Rhythm' Variations.

James Galway's modest contribution came in a pair of Henry Mancini ditties (conducted by Murry Sidlin). These served as gag gifts at this bash, along with the world premiere of another instant anti-classic by P.D.Q. Bach - Eine kleine kiddiemusik.

The irrepressible Peter Schickele, eternally responsible for the "discovery" of this "last and least" son of J. S. Bach, was also a soloist in the piece, with Katia Labeque and Slatkin. Their instrumental arsenal included balloons, bottles, plastic tubes played against the side of the head, and a basketball. The score even called on the solo trio to do the hokey pokey.

There was room, too, for the end of Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3, which Slatkin and company (including organist William Neil) fired up mightily, a bit of schtick from NSO principal pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch, and a group-sing of "Happy Birthday," complete with streamers and confetti.

Could this party have been more substantive? Sure. But not much more fun.

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