A Quartet of Conductors, Ready to Lead

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

As Leonard Slatkin approaches his final season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, there are bound to be numerous critical assessments of what he did -- and did not -- accomplish in his dozen years in Washington.

One innovation that seems a near-complete triumph is the National Conducting Institute, which Slatkin created in 2000 and has supervised each summer. This three-week program offers promising young conductors the opportunity to work closely with the NSO, not only with Slatkin and the musicians but also with representatives from the library, operations, marketing and public relations departments, as well as with the orchestra's president and board of directors.

Ultimately, four conductors are chosen to lead the NSO in a public concert, which this year took place Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center.

"Even the high-profile program at Tanglewood [in Lenox, Mass.], with its outstanding conducting staff and wonderful student orchestra, doesn't get to the heart of the problem," Slatkin explained in 2001. "Their trainees never stand in front of the Boston Symphony. It is one thing for a young conductor to have an opportunity at universities and conservatories to tell other students what to do, but it is quite another matter to direct pros."

That it is, but the four conductors who took the stage on Saturday were well prepared for this transition, and the NSO musicians gave them their all, with a generosity of spirit that was both obvious and quite moving. Best of the group, who ranged in age from mid-20s to 30, was probably the Brazilian-born and Washington-based Marcelo Lehninger, an alert, dynamic figure who made as strong a case as might be imagined for Cesar Franck's rarely heard "Le Chasseur Maudit" ("The Accursed Huntsman"). This tone poem combines passages of serene inspiration with long patches of cheesy diabolism that might have come out of Liszt or Berlioz at his worst, but Lehninger took it seriously, kept it moving in an unbroken arc, and drew brilliantly primal playing from the NSO brass.

Kayoko Dan is already the assistant conductor of the Phoenix Symphony and has been something of a protege of the New York Philharmonic's past music director, Kurt Masur. She led without baton, and seemed more interested in guiding the musicians gently and letting them conjure and appreciate Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" for themselves than in putting her own strong personal stamp on the music. This is a perfectly legitimate way to conduct, especially in such a lovely, straightforward and directly welling score, and when she was needed (mainly during the stop-and-go finale) she was right there.

Ruth Lin, who has her own small orchestra in the Chicago area, led Dvorak's "Scherzo Capriccioso" with vigor and authority. The score, with its mixture of waltzes and proclamations, somehow manages to sound as though it was created half by Johann Strauss Jr. and half by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and yet it all comes out triumphantly Dvorak.

Julian Kuerti is slated to become assistant conductor to James Levine in Boston this fall. He is a sure musician, with an innate sense of form, and his interpretation of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 was carefully calculated and always plausible. Yet he rarely seemed to have much moment-to-moment rapport with the orchestra: He did his thing and the musicians did theirs, and it all held together but was never quite the full collaboration it might have been.

As usual, Slatkin introduced the concert, and promised the enthusiastic audience that we would be hearing all of these musicians again. I certainly hope so.

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