Correction to This Article
In today's Arts section, which was printed in advance, photos of former NSO music directors Hans Kindler and Howard Mitchell are transposed. Mitchell is on the left, and Kindler is on the right.

The NSO: 75 and Counting Its Blessings

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By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

In this, its 75th-anniversary year, the National Symphony Orchestra can look back with considerable pride on its past, while celebrating its present with what may be its most glittering season ever. Still, behind the scenes, much of the orchestra's energy will necessarily be focused on the future -- the NSO's current music director, Leonard Slatkin, is stepping down by the end of the 2007-08 season, and the maneuvering and speculation over who might replace him on the podium is about to begin in earnest.

It's almost impossible to resist handicapping the field, and we'll indulge in some of that below. But whatever qualities the NSO will be seeking in its sixth music director -- and everybody seems to have different ideas on what these should be -- will depend in part on the way the orchestra has evolved under the batons of the five very different men who have led the ensemble over the past three-quarters of a century.

Indeed, considering that Washington is the home of the oldest professional musical organization in the country -- the "President's Own" United States Marine Band, created by an act of Congress in 1798 -- it took our city a long time to form a viable symphony orchestra.

There was the Washington Philharmonic, which lasted for barely a year around the turn of the 20th century. From 1902 to 1905, Reginald de Koven, best remembered as the composer of the once-ubiquitous wedding anthem "Oh Promise Me," led something called the Washington Symphony Orchestra; an attempt to revive the ensemble in 1907 failed after three concerts. And so, when an ad hoc group of musicians, provisionally known as "The National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C.," took the stage of DAR Constitution Hall and played its first program on Jan. 31, 1930, a listener might have been forgiven for doubting the troupe's chances for longevity.

But public response was overwhelmingly favorable, and the renamed National Symphony Orchestra soon announced its first formal season of 24 concerts for 1931-32. Today the NSO is a full-time ensemble of 100 musicians, playing 175 concerts a year, with an annual operating budget of approximately $30 million.

Christoph von Dohnanyi, who was the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1982 to 2002, and Kurt Masur, the music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 2002, will make their NSO debuts next spring. Other visiting maestros include Lorin Maazel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Helmuth Rilling and NSO music director laureate Mstislav Rostropovich. Included in the roster are three men -- James Conlon, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and Stephane Deneve -- who might conceivably be in the running to replace Slatkin.

The season's grand finale will be three performances of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8, to be led by Slatkin next June. Because of the enormous forces it requires -- eight vocal soloists, several choruses, oversize orchestra and booming pipe organ -- the Eighth has been dubbed the "Symphony of a Thousand" (although the NSO will make do with a mere 500 performers). Virtually every vocal ensemble that has any association with the orchestra -- the Cathedral Choral Society, Choral Arts Society, Master Chorale of Washington, Washington Chorus and Children's Chorus of Washington -- will participate, and the leading soprano parts will be sung by Jane Eaglen and Christine Brewer.

Slatkin is the orchestra's fifth music director: He was preceded by Rostropovich (who led the NSO from 1978 to 1994), Antal Dorati (1970-77), Howard Mitchell (1949-69) and Hans Kindler, who assembled that first, speculative concert in 1930 and then went on to lead the orchestra from 1931 to 1949.

The late Milton Schwartz, who played violin in the NSO from its inception until his retirement in 1981, has left a memoir of the orchestra's early days. Schwartz had been employed at the Earle Theater (later renamed the Warner), which was then a film house. "I was standing on the corner of 13th and F streets between shows, watching the world go by, when this seedy-looking person in an old coat and battered hat approached me," he wrote. "I thought, 'This must be a handout.' He said, 'Permit me to introduce myself. I am Hans Kindler.' He was a famous cellist and the first chair of the cello section of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I had heard of him and heard him play. He was indeed very fine.

"He continued, 'I am here to form a symphony orchestra. I just heard you play and I like you very much. Would you be interested in joining my efforts?' Well, talkies were taking over the film industry. The handwriting was on the wall. Soon afterward I was out of a job. At about that time I received a call to attend a rehearsal for what is now the NSO."

Kindler built the NSO rather as a magpie builds a nest. As the WPA Guide to Washington, originally published in 1942, put it: "Potential symphony players had left Washington during the years of musical drought, and Kindler found it necessary to combine local talent with musicians imported from New York, Philadelphia and Boston." But it worked -- even in the worst year of the Great Depression, Kindler managed to create his orchestra.

The first NSO players were paid $40 a week for three rehearsals and a single concert at Constitution Hall, every Thursday afternoon, for five months of the year.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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