Bowing Out

With commissioned compositions and American repertoire, Leonard Slatkin put his stamp on the NSO

June 23, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

On a shelf in Leonard Slatkin's office at the Kennedy Center sit three of his half-dozen Grammy Awards, alongside photographs of him receiving honors from the two presidents whose terms coincided with his own as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. That tenure ends this month after 12 eventful seasons.

"I think I did a lot," Slatkin says, in between sips of a soda. "Not as much as I would have liked, but a lot."

If those accomplishments had to be summed up in a single sentence, it might be: He put the "national" in the National Symphony.

More than 50 American composers produced works commissioned by Slatkin and the NSO. And a remarkable amount of music by other Americans, past and present, from Leroy Anderson to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, regularly enriched the programming during the Slatkin years.

"Leonard's focus on contemporary music, especially American contemporary music, has been an important change for the orchestra," says Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, who oversees the NSO, a constituent of the center. "Leonard's reshaped the orchestra and made it a better ensemble."

Slatkin's predecessor, the late cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, enjoyed great public affection and brought the NSO attention, if not always respect, during his 17 years on the podium.

"People didn't think highly of the orchestra," Slatkin says. "It was known for being about Slava [Rostropovich's nickname]. Most people didn't know me when I arrived [after 17 years with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra]. There were many fierce Slava supporters."

But Slatkin, 63, gradually made his own mark with dynamic performances, as well as pithy and insightful remarks from the stage about new works, and frequent after-concert talks with the audience.

The new direction he took the repertoire, with all of those modern sounds, might have backfired in some places. But "attendance has not changed substantially," Kaiser says. "The NSO has a very loyal following."

What those audiences have been hearing over the past dozen seasons is an orchestra that bears the Slatkin stamp.

"I appointed almost one-third of the players, and I'm pleased about the appointments," the conductor says. "I have to say that, when I took over, it was hard to define any personality in terms of the collective sound of the NSO. That has changed. The orchestra began to project personality in the string tone. It wasn't that way with Slava. I am always thinking about how an orchestra sounds. That's a function sadly missing today; it's more about technical abilities."

To Slatkin's critics, in the press and within the NSO, such thinking has led to concerts that weren't as technically polished as they should and could have been. The conductor has been faulted for not maximizing rehearsal time, for not demanding enough from the players, even for being too intelligent for his own good - not making the effort to ensure that the musicians grasped things that came easily to him.

With the choice of so much music unfamiliar to the orchestra, there were complaints, too, that the NSO wasn't spending enough quality time with standard symphonic repertoire.

"Could some performances have been better? Sure," Slatkin says. "If I had done more conservative programming, I'm sure the NSO could have been a virtuoso ensemble, but I wanted adventure."

This season, that desire led to such compelling presentations as the first complete performance - anywhere, in 30 years - of David Del Tredici's Lewis Carroll-inspired Final Alice. "That was a huge challenge," Slatkin says, "as complicated as anything Elliott Carter writes. At first, I think the attitude in the orchestra was, 'so many notes.' But then they got it. I was very proud of everybody."

Other remarkable ventures included the first D.C. performance of Olivier Messiaen's massive Turangalila ("I had a good time doing that," Slatkin says) and several tightly packed festivals that became a feature of the conductor's era. The latter included celebrations of film music and works written by composers who immigrated to the U.S.

Another festival, in 2000, focused on Gustav Mahler's fascinating, if controversial, rescoring of Beethoven symphonies in the early 20th century. For Mahler fans, this was an invaluable experience.

"That was one of the few intellectual exercises I attempted here," Slatkin says. "It was a high point for me. I found it very enlightening." But the idea of unearthing reorchestrated Beethoven struck some as sacrilege, and the conductor was still being criticized in print years later for ever having contemplated such a thing.

Discontent, inside and outside the NSO, over any number of other things dogged Slatkin. He admits there was a period several years ago "when I wasn't focused. My rehearsals were perfunctory," he says. "I had a major personal crisis that affected my music-making. I had outside interests, shall we say."

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