Leonard Slatkin talks a great Mahler Ninth.
Last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the National Symphony Orchestra devoted the first portion of its program to Slatkin's 20-minute spoken introduction to Gustav Mahler's final symphony, complete with musical examples. After intermission, the orchestra regrouped and played the work in its entirety.
Slatkin is one of the best popular explainers of music since the late Leonard Bernstein and his long-ago "Young People's Concerts." Like Bernstein (to whom he paid homage from the stage), Slatkin has the ability to say complicated things about a complicated art in a manner that is neither obfuscatory nor condescending. His comments last night were generally plausible and sometimes enlightening, even if a few of his musical comparisons seemed a stretch.
Still, in this chattiest of cities -- in a town so addicted to learned speculation that you could probably open up a bar called C-SPAN Zone and make a profit -- do we really want more talk at the end of the day? Post-concert discussions can be welcome lagniappe: A pre-concert lecture is an agreeable luxury. But my guess is that most of the audience would have been willing to forgo the enforced 40-minute elongation of the evening that Slatkin's lecture and what became a necessary intermission entailed.
Wouldn't it have been possible to add another piece? (Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony will bring along a Mozart piano concerto to complement their version of the Mahler Ninth at the Kennedy Center next month.) Or couldn't the 80-minute symphony have stood by itself, as it did when Christoph von Dohnanyi played it here with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1999? Never mind -- we got the Leonard Slatkin Show and I was occasionally reminded of a woman sitting behind me during a similar elucidation of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 a couple of years back, who hissed "Play ball!" as Slatkin plowed on.
The performance itself combined Slatkin's strengths and weaknesses, by now well known. There can be no doubt that he has built the NSO into an ensemble with the virtuosity and sheer muscle required to surmount the monstrous challenges this symphony presents (one shudders to imagine an NSO performance of the Mahler Ninth in 1995). And yet if Slatkin had anything profoundly personal he wanted to convey in his performance, he kept it to himself. His interpretation seemed the work of a smooth, highly professional musician who learned the symphony in a hurry.
Slatkin steered a middle course between the wildly subjective, angst-ridden grotesqueries that Bernstein uncovered in Mahler and the cooler, cleaner interpretations of such conductors as Bernard Haitink. There were some luscious solos in the first movement and the lower brass in particular made a booming impression (the Mahler symphonies are pure manna for such players). But, much of the time in this notoriously sprawling movement, one had the sense that Slatkin was struggling, and the sound took on an undirected, undifferentiated noisiness.
The Scherzo had the opposite problem: Here the solos were threadbare while the group passages had real style and incision. Slatkin conducted this 15-minute grimace as if it were Shostakovich and his approach worked. Better still was the third-movement Burleske, which practically counts as a miniature in such gigantic company; the performance combined taut propulsion with a gorgeous legato solo by first trumpeter Steven Hendrickson.
The prayerful finale is celebrated -- a long exhalation, both exhausted and mind-splittingly lush. There was cohesion and consistency throughout the movement -- the NSO at or near its best until the music died away in starry quietude. May such wonderful playing spread to all the movements when the symphony is repeated tonight at 8 and tomorrow night at 7.