Sunday, June 29, 2008

The year 1994 was an auspicious one for the National Symphony Orchestra. That fall, Leonard Slatkin conducted the ensemble in his first ever appearance here as music director designate. The town buzzed with anticipation, hoping for a new look for the orchestra, an updated repertoire and more involvement by the orchestra in the community.

The maestro did not disappoint.

By coincidence, that fall also began this critic’s stint as a musical writer for The Washington Times. It proved a sterling opportunity to witness firsthand the changes in the NSO as they unfolded.

Almost immediately after formally taking the helm two years later, Mr. Slatkin aggressively recruited first-rate musicians, diversified the NSO’s repertoire and educational outreach efforts and, most notably, involved himself as an adviser in the successful renovation of the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, which resulted in a richer, warmer sound for the ensemble.

The early Slatkin years were heady, exciting and sometimes controversial. After the turn of the century, however, things soured between the maestro and the NSO organization. The result: The NSO chose not to renew his contract when it expired at the end of this season.

This weekend, Mr. Slatkin conducted his last regular season concerts with the NSO. His program (pure Slatkin through and through) offered something old (Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a), something relatively new (Dmitri Shostakovich’s rarely heard Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 126, dating from 1966), and something All-American (Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3), one of the works he conducted during his 1994 appearance.

While the Thursday evening performance’s Beethoven could have been a bit more crisp, the more modern works on the program were right on target. The Shostakovich concerto is an introspective, sometimes vinegary work, whose agonized cello part depicts a lonely artist whose existential act of heroism is simple survival in a hostile world.

Fabulous young cellist Sol Gabetta attacked this challenging music with great passion, enveloping her instrument like a willowy reincarnation of the late Jacqueline du Pre.

The concert closed with an electric performance of Mr. Copland’s grandly conceived, brashly American Symphony No. 3 (1947), which incorporates the composer’s iconic “Fanfare for the Common Man” in its finale. Mr. Slatkin chose to conclude the work with a triumphal coda Leonard Bernstein had persuaded the composer to cut - a seemingly appropriate final statement from this controversial maestro who is leaving the NSO a demonstrably finer instrument than the one he inherited.

Following Saturday evening’s sold-out gala farewell concert, Mr. Slatkin was scheduled to depart to become music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor for the Pittsburgh and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. As yet, no permanent replacement is in the wings for the NSO.


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