Slatkin and the NSO, American Tourists in Mahlerland

Leonard Slatkin, good at the details if not the emotion of Mahler.
Leonard Slatkin, good at the details if not the emotion of Mahler. (2004 Photo By Rebecca D'angelo For The Washington Post)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2008

A couple of decades ago, the idea that American orchestras had their own sound, distinct from European ones, was more prevalent than it may be today. The stereotype, roughly, is that American orchestras played with energy, not finesse; technical brilliance, not emotional depth. Today this concept seems dated: Orchestras are more proficient in a range of styles, arguably more homogeneous and perhaps more grown up. But Leonard Slatkin remains the embodiment of this brand of Americanism.

Mahler, therefore, is not a seamless fit for him. On the one hand, Mahler offers the kind of orchestral detail, the variety of instruments and colors and events, at which Slatkin excels. On the other hand, Mahler is all about emotion, and it is here that Slatkin seems somewhat at a loss. The all-Mahler program -- featuring the "Kindertotenlieder" (Songs on the Death of Children) and the Sixth Symphony -- in which Slatkin led the National Symphony Orchestra last night, was a grand panorama of light and shadow, but the lights may have been brighter and the shadows less steady than he entirely intended.

There has been a lot of gender-bending in the vocal scene in Washington this month: First, Christine Schaefer offered "Winterreise," and now Thomas Hampson has moved into mezzo-soprano territory in the "Kindertotenlieder." It is not a new excursion for him, although to accept it still requires, to this ear, a suspension of disbelief: Mahler is such a careful master of timbre that the substitution of a dark male voice for the amber flow of a female one significantly changes the piece's flavor.

It was in any case one of those nights when one felt it unfair that the first performance of a program is the one preserved in the imperfect snapshot of a review. The performance felt more like a dress rehearsal; soloist and orchestra were still getting the measure of each other. It did not help that this piece relentlessly spotlights exactly those places where this orchestra and conductor are weakest: the winds and brass on the one hand, and searing emotional expression on the other. Hampson could not provide the latter alone, though he tried, deep and throaty in "Wenn dein Muetterlein," rising to a pale, quiet near-falsetto in "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen!" The orchestra simply produced notes, more or less accurately, around him, until the end of the fifth and final song, "In diesem Wetter." This song ends with a sense of release, like the quiet after tears or a hint of light after a storm, and this less turgid emotion proved to be something Slatkin and the orchestra could illustrate beautifully.

The Sixth Symphony might be called restrained in Mahler terms, since it has only four movements and no chorus or vocal soloists, and does not seek to depict, say, all of creation, or the mysteries of the spirit. But "restraint" is relative. The piece lasts well over an hour, and journeys from Alpine pastures humming with the whisper of cowbells to the sound of Fate itself, pounding with three blows of a gigantic hammer at one side of the stage, adding an unusual visual dramaturgy.

Slatkin's lightness of touch can be a virtue. True, he plunged into the piece with very little hint of the intensity to come; true, the radiant theme in the first movement, generally described as a depiction of the composer's wife, Alma, seemed to depict the lady as a harridan, a Picasso woman with gaping eyes, pointed tongue and sharp teeth. But at the end of the first movement, the individual themes shone through rather than being bogged down in size and scale and emotion. This sense of architecture did not uniformly prevail. One of the debates about performing this symphony involves the placement of the slow movement; Slatkin plays it second, and the Scherzo third, but as the Scherzo lost much of its manic intensity in this reading, it did not form as much of a contrast as it might have. The final movement was a tremendous statement indeed, but murky, and the brass rose up to sabotage some of the important moments.

The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night.

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