The Washington Post

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)

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.

Cellist Gautier Capuçon presented a robust, clean performance. (M. Tammaro/Virgin Classics)

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.


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