Lively mix is classic Slatkin

Music Column

January 22, 2008|By Tim Smith ... | Tim Smith ...,Sun Music Critic

A significant era is winding down in Washington, where Leonard Slatkin's dozen-year tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra will end in June. He has fortified the ensemble, made it more versatile and flexible than it was when his predecessor, Mstislav Rostropovich, had the reins. He has enlivened the music scene with unexpected repertoire and festivals.

Not that you would necessarily gather any of this from perusing some of the local media coverage. Many concert reviews and commentary pieces Slatkin generates read more like multicount felony indictments from an over-eager district attorney's office.

Virulent, highly personal slams - of a sort most people in the media would have a hard time withstanding if the tables were turned - are routine. He has even been charged with being a little too bright, an imprisonable offense if ever I heard one.

Slatkin, who takes over the Detroit Symphony next season, is no more infallible than the next conductor, but his talents and tastes cannot be easily dismissed.

The NSO's latest program was a good example of the Slatkin touch - a powerfully delivered mix of standard fare, balanced by a meaty contemporary American item.

John Corigliano's Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 2, scored for string orchestra and based on his 1995 String Quartet, moves compellingly between drama-laden and lyrical, barely audible and explosive, icy and brilliantly colored.

On Friday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, Slatkin's sure, sensitive grasp unleashed the symphony's unusual beauty; the players met its many challenges admirably (pianissimos were articulated with particular care).

In Brahms' Violin Concerto, soloist Sarah Chang often sacrificed tone quality to make a grand or energetic statement, but soared in the music's poetic side. Slatkin got warmth and depth from the orchestra (though not quite enough subtlety from the woodwinds in the Adagio).

A lithe account of Mozart's Overture to The Magic Flute was propelled by clear, colorful string playing.

There is still no word on Slatkin's successor at the NSO. The blogosphere lit up last week with rumors that departing Philadelphia Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach would get the nod, an intriguing suggestion that was quickly denied.

Like everyone else in the business these days, administrators at the NSO are probably hoping to stir up the scene with someone unexpected, on the order of young Venezuelan dynamo Gustavo Dudamel, snapped up by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to great fanfare; or the youngish American Alan Gilbert, tapped by the New York Philharmonic.

It can't be an easy search.

Double centennials

Let the parties begin.

2008 will mark the 100th birthday on Dec. 11 of Elliott Carter, the challenging, hardy American composer who is still very active; and the centennial, one day before, of the mystically inclined Frenchman, Olivier Messiaen, who died in 1992.

It doesn't look like Baltimore will be a hotbed of celebrations for either composer. Perhaps it's not too late for folks planning their 2008-2009 seasons to work major Carter and Messiaen repertoire into the mix next fall; we could all be the richer for it.

Yes, Carter's name alone can frighten audiences, but that's no excuse to keep him off programs. The variety, complexity and consistent quality of Carter's output, the keen intelligence behind every note and tone color, will long fascinate and reward the willing. He deserves to be part of our local aural landscape.

Same for Messiaen. His music, steeped in birdsong and religious imagery, occupies an amazing, incomparable niche. Luckily, some of Messiaen's output will be sampled this season, including organ works and Oiseaux exotiques at the Peabody Institute, and the Quartet for the End of Time at Second Presbyterian Church.

But there's still a lot more we're missing here, starting with his Turangalila Symphony, a sensuous, gripping powerhouse of sonic glory. If not in 2008, when?

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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