Correction to This Article
A Sept. 21 Style article misstated the date of a National Symphony Orchestra performance. The NSO's all-Tchaikovsky gala will be Sunday night, not Saturday night.

Slatkin and The NSO, Still Playing Well Together

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Music Director Leonard Slatkin is set to end his tenure with the National Symphony Orchestra after the 2007-08 season, and the orchestra has begun a low-key search for his successor. Since his departure was announced, Slatkin has solidified his guest-conducting relationship with numerous orchestras around the globe. As everyone focuses on the horizon, the question arises whether the NSO-Slatkin collaboration has any juice in the here and now.

A full picture probably will emerge only during the unfolding season, but last evening's concert, which came as part of the Kennedy Center's Prelude Festival, gave some hints. At least in the all-important music-making itself, the conductor and the NSO sounded like a committed team, giving vibrant renderings of the kind of heart-on-the-sleeve works that have dominated concerts in the Slatkin years. These artists appeared ready to make the most of their remaining time together.

Slatkin's influence pervaded the evening even beyond the program of works by William Walton, Aaron Copland and Brahms. Here was the warm sound the conductor prizes, centered on the rich blending of the strings and the burnished glow of the brass. Slatkin may have shown his tendency to exaggerate the sound at places where it would benefit from restraint and balance. But throughout was the patent professionalism that enables this ensemble to illuminate music and integrate fluently with guest artists -- on this evening, superstar Israeli violinist Gil Shaham.

Walton's Partita for Orchestra came together beautifully to open the concert. This celebratory short piece combines the swaggering exuberance of Edward Elgar and the more antique elegance of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Yet Slatkin smartly took away the stodginess often associated with the British composer and his compatriots. The opening movement roared ahead on some tight wind playing and agile string themes that seemed to get inside this dense score. After a tenderly rendered second movement, the finale sparkled with marching rhythms and dancing woodwinds.

Slatkin's romantic style led to an impassioned and expansive account of Copland's beloved "Appalachian Spring." The performance had a cinematic quality that unfailingly conjured images of windswept plains and tree-covered mountains. From the spare opening chords to that renowned Shaker melody, the players handled each phrase with equal parts sensitivity and grace.

After intermission, Shaham joined the orchestra for Brahms's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77. The violinist is one of music's more genial and thoughtful artists, comparable to cellist Yo-Yo Ma in his fusion of sovereign technique and amiable personality. Shaham plays from the heart, always immersing himself in the music and laying everything on the line.

In the concerto, Shaham used his purely golden tone and commanding fingerwork to capture the work's contrasting lyrical and dramatic sides. Silvery ribbons of sound emerged from his instrument one moment, giving over to darker and churning chords the next. The softest pianissimos landed in the back of the Concert Hall with a poetic force.

The orchestra, for its part, similarly rendered the climaxes and more subtle accompaniment with lucid vitality and aplomb.

The performance repeats tonight and tomorrow afternoon, warming up the orchestra for its all-Tchaikovsky season-opening gala on Saturday night.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company