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National Symphony Dusts Off And Polishes Obscure Pieces

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2005; Page C01

If the output of America's symphonic composers from the mid-20th century remains relatively unknown to most listeners, don't blame Leonard Slatkin. The music director of the National Symphony Orchestra has made the promotion of this body of work one of his pet causes, programming pieces not only by our small canon of acknowledged artistic heroes (Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson) but also by once-celebrated, now-neglected figures such as Walter Piston (1894-1976) and William Schuman (1910-1992), from whom we don't hear much anymore.

Schuman's fall has been unusually precipitous and, on the basis of the Symphony No. 3 that Slatkin and the NSO played last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, somewhat unfair. Perhaps Schuman's legendary acumen in musical politics -- he capped a long and eventful presidency of the Juilliard School by becoming the first president of Lincoln Center -- has worked against his posthumous reputation. In many minds, the old romantic image of the struggling artist as inspired misfit still holds sway, and Schuman -- who was slick, charming and, above all, devastatingly effective -- never fit that particular mold.

Leonidas Kavakos played Korngold. (Helge Kirchberger)

Nevertheless, there may be some purely musical reasons for his present obscurity. The Symphony No. 3 is so ambitious, so unrelentingly proclamatory that it wears the listener down by sheer assertion. Lotsa brass, lotsa fugues, lotsa energy, lotsa lotsa -- for almost 40 minutes. At times, Schuman reminds me of one of those windy German contrapuntalists of the late 19th century -- Max Reger, say -- with hard, modern American muscles. At other times, he seems a Shostakovich with nothing to bear witness to. Slatkin clearly loves this music, however, and it is hard to imagine it played with more passion and proportionate spring than it was last night.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto was probably the best known piece on the program (one possible reason why the house was so far from filled). This lush, opulent work was written for the late Jascha Heifetz, who made an alternately luminous and slashing recording for RCA that remains in print half a century later. Last night, the violinist was Leonidas Kavakos, who plays with virtuosity aplenty, but a curiously sour tone. Nor is the music especially interesting, with the exception of a sweetly wrought "Romance" that serves as the central movement.

Paul Creston (1906-1985) is best remembered for his Sonata for Saxophone and Piano, one of the few works of real distinction for that pairing of instruments. The work played last night -- "Frontiers" (1943) -- is pretty much what you might imagine from the title: self-conscious, "Go West, Young Man" Americana that calls to mind Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" without the tunes or bumptious charm.

The strongest works of the evening were the shortest. Almost all of Thomson's best music calls to mind the sustained, four-part harmonies that seem to naturally emanate from a church organ, and his "Fugue and Chorale on 'Yankee Doodle' " was no exception. Surprisingly, Thomson's employment of the familiar tune is not so much an exuberant romp as it is a meditative ramble.

Elliott Carter is now in his mid-nineties and still actively composing music. A charming madrigal setting of an Emily Dickinson piece for chorus (here the Master Chorale of Washington) and small ensemble, dating back 60 years, proved a happy surprise. The title of the piece -- "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere" -- is prescient, as the composer's highly complicated later music does call to mind a competitive bout of sorts for the players who would take it on. But this beautiful little work has something that is rarely found in those later pieces -- welling and abundant charm.

The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8. This is the first of two NSO contributions to the Kennedy Center's celebration of "A New America: The 1940s and the Arts." Next week's offering will be devoted to Bernstein, Copland and Samuel Barber.

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