NSO's Slatkin sendoff: lively and upbeat

MUSIC

July 01, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Leonard Slatkin bowed out in trademark style Sunday night, ending his 12-year tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra with an entertaining program that reflected his wide-ranging tastes and skills.

Greeted by a standing ovation when he first walked onto the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage, as he had been last Thursday for the final subscription concert of the NSO season, the conductor launched quickly into what was billed as a "Salute to Slatkin."

Actually, there wasn't that much saluting. After intermission, NSO board chairman Ann Jordan said a few kind words and introduced a brief video that highlighted Slatkin's achievements; when that was over, and the conductor returned to the stage, the musicians applauded him, mildly.

Otherwise, the night was devoted to music-making - and some of the best NSO music-making in recent memory. There was an extra kick and relish to a lot of the orchestra's playing, perhaps activated by a collective sigh of relief (relations between musicians and music director were not always smooth). Slatkin seemed to enjoy himself immensely, too, as if feeling a little relief of his own (he starts with a clean slate next season as music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

Sunday's program resonated with NSO history, especially the cello connection. The first music director, Hans Kindler, was a cellist who, pre-NSO, premiered Ernest Bloch's Schelomo, a sobering work at the center of this concert, with Yo-Yo Ma as the ardent, arrestingly expressive soloist.

The cello figures in Slatkin's life as well; his mother was a highly regarded cellist; his brother still is. With them in mind, and with thoughts of commemorating his conductor/violinist father, too, Slatkin composed Dialogue for two cellos and orchestra in 1975.

The piece had its first performance since then on Sunday. It's pithy and seamlessly constructed, with a neat ratio between bravura and poetry. Slatkin's masterful ear for instrumental coloring is everywhere apparent, from a glistening passage for delicate bells early on to a cool finale dominated by kinetic percussion.

Ma was joined in the Dialogue by the remarkable Sol Gabetta, who made her startling NSO debut in a Shostakovich's concerto last week with Slatkin. The two cellists seemed to draw extra inspiration from each other as the score unfolded, digging in to lyrical moments with particular power, and the orchestra gave them vivid support.

Slatkin had Bernstein's Candide Overture bubbling and galloping along nimbly, and he was at his subtlest in Elgar's Serenade for Strings - gentle and beautiful music, gently and beautifully molded. The NSO strings, which have been built up considerably during Slaktin's tenure, displayed their ample strengths here.

Orchestral showpieces book-ended the program. Shostakovich's boisterous Festive Overture got a bold workout, with extra brass in the balcony behind the orchestra.

And Slatkin effectively drew out the tone-painting brilliance of Respighi's evocative Pines of Rome, this time with the brass reinforcements stationed out in the hall to give a surround-sound boost to the blazing finish.

After the Respighi ear-fest, Slatkin thanked the public for the many letters over the years ("and sometimes not so wonderful letters"), and thanked the orchestra.

He then introduced the single encore, a piece that honored the centennial of Leroy Anderson, to the day, and also reflected one of Slatkin's endearing qualities: his respect and affection for lighter music. He had the NSO playing Anderson's infectious Belle of the Ball most charmingly, providing an upbeat close of Slatkin's eventful era in Washington.

NOI Orchestra

The 21st National Orchestral Institute - an invaluable training program for musicians between the ages of 18 and 28 - wrapped up Saturday night with a program devoted to natural imagery, as conjured up in symphonies by Schumann and Mahler.

The NOI Orchestra, its players chosen from about 700 applicants from around the country, produced a great deal of spirited, strongly connected playing at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. Andrew Litton, music director of Norway's Bergen Philharmonic, got the most from the ensemble in a particularly impressive account of Mahler's Symphony No. 1. I would have welcomed more rhythmic elasticity from the conductor, especially in the middle section of the Scherzo, but Litton's intensity paid off handsomely.

Blumine, a serenade that evokes night-blooming jasmine under a moonlit sky, was discarded by Mahler from its original place in that symphony. It was played separately on this program, shaped sensitively by Litton and inspiring sweetly nuanced playing.

Litton approached Schumann's Spring Symphony with plenty of drive, if somewhat square phrasing. The woodwinds made a strong showing here, but, as was the case all evening, this was a fully collective effort that exuded a captivating sense of music being freshly lived and loved.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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