Promising Young Conductors Take Center Stage

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006

One of Leonard Slatkin's greatest achievements as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra was the creation of the National Conducting Institute, an annual three-week program that, according to Slatkin, "is designed to assist conductors from leading academic, community or part-time orchestras to directing major professional groups."

And so four musicians, three of them young and one in mid-career, took the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall late Saturday afternoon to make their debuts with the NSO. It must have been a thrilling occasion for all of them. The house was packed with friends and family, and hearty cries of "Bravo!" and "Brava!" rang out again and again.

Slatkin himself introduced the program, which was presented free of charge and ran a little over 90 minutes, with no intermission. He promised that "each and every one" of the conductors would be heard from again, and the evidence of the concert left a listener believing -- or at least hoping -- that this would be the case.

Leanna Primiani, a Peabody-trained, California-based conductor and composer, began the program with Richard Wagner's Overture to "Tannhauser." She was at her best in the more vigorous passages, which had energy and drive; it may have been a case of nerves that rendered her leadership of slower music (particularly at the opening) halting and inconclusive.

Tito Muñoz is the assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He led the suite from Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid" and did a credible job holding this amiable but somewhat sprawling confection together. He let it unfold gradually, like a good, digressive yarn told around a campfire, illuminating all sorts of inventive musical detail along the way, but never quite losing the thrust of the narrative.

Not surprisingly, the most assured of the four conductors was John Clanton, who has served for the past 21 years leading orchestras and choruses in the U.S. Army music program, where he now holds the rank of lieutenant colonel. He selected Liszt's "Les Preludes," a one-time warhorse, beloved of our grandparents, that is now rarely performed. He made a persuasive case for the score, emphasizing its sweetness and welling lyricism rather than its occasional bombast, and, interestingly, considering Clanton's background, this was probably the least martial "Les Preludes" I've ever heard.

The program closed with Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," led by a tall, charismatic French conductor named Helene Bouchez (who, among her other achievements, has the longest hair I've ever seen on any orchestral musician, a golden ponytail reaching down to her hips). This is an episodic piece, and Bouchez led an episodic performance -- bristling and alive when she was "on," but somewhat disjunct as an overall musical statement, with connective passages not quite so seamless as one might have hoped for.

The NSO musicians gave their all to their guests, playing with polish and pride, even taking over occasionally when directorship from the podium was vague. May these promising conductors always be rewarded with an orchestra so welcoming.

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