Former National Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin was in town Saturday as the University of Maryland’s National Orchestral Institute presented the first of three full-orchestra programs at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Slatkin had only a few days to pull together this assemblage of college-age musicians into a cohesive orchestra. He was only partially successful.
Slatkin’s indifference to orchestral balances marred his National Symphony tenure, and he has not improved in this area. It is particularly unfortunate that he repeated this mistake with the NOI. The orchestra boasts a string section that numerically is at full symphonic strength; the section clearly would be able to produce glorious sounds if given a fighting chance. But vast swaths of important musical material were rendered inaudible by the brass and percussion players, who were never given anything but encouragement from the podium.
In the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, all was bombast and macho one-upmanship among the brass and timpani players. The string players — who looked skilled and attentive all the way to the last stands — would have been appalled if they knew how few of their carefully practiced notes were actually audible.
Slatkin opened the concert with the Bach/Stokowski Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor,” a work of plodding bathos that likely taught these student musicians very little.
The second piece was a local premiere of “Double Play” by Slatkin’s new bride, Cindy McTee. It was worth the drive. McTee studied with the Polish master Krzysztof Penderecki, and lived in his home for a year. Her music, while unmistakably American-sounding, also hums with Penderecki’s craftsmanship and a catholic array of influences across several centuries. The first part is an homage to Ives, while the second is a mash-up of big-band licks a la Leonard Bernstein and scurrying, frenetic urban passages. Great fun, and well delivered by all.
Battey is a freelance writer.