National Symphony Orchestra celebrates 75 years

Organization has grown into a solid, respected institution

Classical Music

September 18, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Just as in Baltimore, many music lovers in Washington looked to the visiting Philadelphia Orchestra for their high art fixes during the early decades of the 20th century. They couldn't be counted on to give locally built ensembles much credence.

But such snootiness didn't stop the National Symphony Orchestra from being founded in 1931, any more than it kept the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from getting off the ground 15 years before that.

There had been previous attempts to establish a homegrown orchestra in D.C., as far back as 1902. Another, in 1930, was a self-governed ensemble that managed three concerts (the BSO's chief conductor at the time, Gustav Stube, led a portion of one) before it folded.

But one of the conductors involved in that venture - Hans Kindler, former principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra - refused to give up.

"It was obvious that the nation's capital needed an orchestra," says Leonard Slatkin, whose 10th season as the NSO's fifth music director coincides with the institution's 75th. "Kindler's mission was to get something going here."

His efforts paid off. Kindler was not exactly to the podium born, but he made his mark. The orchestra, ensconced at the acoustically challenged Constitution Hall, became good enough to put such luminaries as pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, violinist Jascha Heifetz and conductor Bruno Walter on its guest-artist roster.

In 1935, the NSO added a summer season at an unusual venue - a barge on the Potomac River near the Lincoln Memorial and Memorial Bridge, a spot called Watergate. (Jet traffic noise from Washington's airport eventually proved too much competition and the site was abandoned three decades later, while the name Watergate would enter the common consciousness for decidedly inartistic reasons in 1972.)

When Kindler stepped down in 1949, the NSO board had a chance to hire eminent Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitsky, who wanted to bring a promising guy named Leonard Bernstein with him as assistant. Instead, the job went to Kindler's principal cellist, Howard Mitchell.

"That the board could let a conductor of Koussevitsky's caliber get away says a lot about the artistic climate in Washington at the time," writes Ted Libbey in his 1995 history of the NSO. "And the thought of young Bernstein making his mark in Washington, rather than in New York, is enough to make one's mouth water, and then one's eyes."

Expanding credibility

Mitchell, who remained on the job until 1969, never developed into a first-rate conductor. But he "did a lot to give the orchestra credibility nationwide," Slatkin says. "One of the first records I ever got was his recording of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony."

Mitchell led the NSO on its first foreign tours, including a remarkable 12 weeks in Latin America in 1959, performing a good deal of American music.

Distinguished conductors and soloists appeared with the NSO in Washington during the Mitchell era, including, in 1956, a Russian cellist named Mstislav ("Slava") Rostropovich, who would later play a major role in the orchestra's development.

Unfortunately, morale in the NSO never rose much above the miserable with Mitchell at the helm. Spirits - and artistic quality - improved considerably when Antal Dorati succeeded him in 1970.

Dorati was the first through-and-through conductor and first seasoned orchestra builder in the NSO's history. "He had a lot of housecleaning to do," Slatkin says. "He was very much a disciplinarian who brought a new level of finesse and expertise to the players."

He also had a new home in which to hone the orchestra, starting in 1971 - the Kennedy Center.

Dorati ran afoul of the symphony board, which brushed him aside to offer Rostropovich the music director post right after the superstar cellist made his NSO guest-conducting debut in 1975. Washington Post music critic Paul Hume predicted that people would be telling their grandchildren about that performance of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique.

Rostropovich, who took the reins in 1977, stayed for 17 years. "Slava brought star power," Slatkin says, "not only his own, but that of the artists he could attract, and through international touring."

Opinions differ considerably on Rostropovich's conducting ability, but his interpretations of Russian music could be indelible.

During the Slava years, the NSO established a regular presence on public television through broadcasts of its popular free concerts on the West Lawn of the Capitol. The orchestra also underlined the "national" in its title by creating a series of extended and extensive residencies in different states, starting with Alaska in 1992.

American music

When Slatkin arrived in 1996, the NSO was certainly better known than it had ever been, but wasn't necessarily in peak artistic shape. The conductor set about beefing up all aspects of the ensemble, from personnel (he has hired more than 25 of the players, including several principals) to repertoire.

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