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Posted at 01:29 PM ET, 11/11/2011

Leonard Slatkin plays to his strengths with the National Symphony Orchestra

Leonard Slatkin, joined by cellist Gautier Capucon, led the National Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninoff and Saint-Saëns. (Donald Dietz)
Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony Orchestra’s previous music director, returns this week playing to his strengths, with a rarity by Rachmaninoff, a standard concerto, and a thorny modern work. A good crowd turned out at the Kennedy Center for Thursday evening’s performance.

The curtain-raiser was the local premiere of “rewind” by Anna Clyne, the first work the NSO has played of this 31-year-old British-born composer; it was her master’s thesis in composition at the Manhattan School of Music. A study in urban chaos as well as an effort to musically depict a stop/start rewinding of a video scene, the work’s best feature is its brevity. We’ve heard all of this before, many times; riotous percussion, fragmented atonal motives, downward smears from the brass, scurrying, chugging strings punctuated by sharp tutti explosions, and an overall texture of furiously jejune busy-work.

The evening’s soloist, the telegenic French cellist Gautier Capuçon,
Cellist Gautier Capuçon presented a robust, clean performance. (M. Tammaro/Virgin Classics)
offered a sophisticated rendition of the Saint-Saëns Concerto. A small man with a large sound, the artist drew a wonderfully rich palette of sounds from his Gofriller cello; the finale’s big tune in the low register, and the whispered colors of his first entrance in the Allegretto were highlights. In louder passages the vibrato could be pushed into goat-bleat, and Capuçon was always slightly ahead in the virtuoso passages, though they were clean and in tune. Slatkin’s accompaniment was deft, the orchestra never overpowered, and the many competing voices in the first movement’s development section were perfectly balanced. It’s not unusual for a soloist to offer an encore, but rare for the orchestra to take part; here, the Massenet “Meditation” was delivered with Gallic charm, nothing overdone.

It’s remarkable that the NSO, with two music directors who specialized in Russian music, never played two of Rachmaninoff’s major orchestral works until recently; the Symphonic Dances in 1988 and the Third Symphony a decade later. The orchestra still has the style well in hand, and Slatkin led a mostly successful reading of the Symphony, which is too rarely heard. Though the thematic material is perhaps not as immediately appealing as that of the Second Symphony or the two major concertos, the orchestration and formal complexity represent an advance over his more popular works. The second movement, in particular, a combined slow movement and scherzo, displays the composer’s quintessential mix of musical passion, creative orchestral color, and structural logic at its finest.

The NSO is as good as it is today due in part to Slatkin’s work; a large number of the musicians onstage were his hires, including all the string principals. But his conducting has always been limited; his need to place the ictus (point) of virtually every beat at all times, including in slower, lyrical passages, paradoxically results in less precision, as the players have to adjust and re-adjust their natural phrasing to conform to an unnecessarily intrusive element. Although he invoked lush and committed playing from all sections, the music also lacked that last ounce of freedom and accuracy that the orchestra is achieving on its best nights with its current director. Still, the concert’s well worth hearing for the repertoire and the soloist. The program will be repeated tonight and Saturday.

Battey is a freelance writer.

By Robert Battey  |  01:29 PM ET, 11/11/2011

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