A Sense of Anticlimax at the National Symphony

(By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

From Marc Fisher's blog Raw Fisher

When Leonard Slatkin hustled onto the Kennedy Center stage for one of his final concerts as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, the audience reacted with measured enthusiasm. Even after a dazzling performance by a young cello soloist making her Washington debut, even after the orchestra's chairman, Ann Jordan, presented the departing music director with a portrait signed by the musicians, the Friday night audience could not manage a standing ovation.

What a contrast from Slatkin's arrival in Washington in 1994. When Slatkin was appointed to take over the orchestra, the view inside the Kennedy Center and around the region was that this was a superstar who would lift the NSO to a whole new level, launching Washington to a cultural stature in keeping with its traditional political prowess and its then-emerging economic heft.

"I cannot take my eyes off Leonard Slatkin. The music comes from within him," French horn player Sylvia Alimena told me back then. "The audience will immediately hear a tighter orchestra, one that's playing with confidence. A musician can tell when something's been choreographed and when it's coming from their soul."

Conducting is a mystical, sensual pursuit, I wrote back in '94, trying to figure out why the hiring of a music director was such a big deal. A conductor is like a football coach, clergyman or newspaper editor. He inspires, or he is a technician, or he is a charlatan. Most are charlatans.

Six years later, when the Washington Wizards brought a fading Michael Jordan to town to run the team, the hope and prayer was that his magic would somehow rub off on all of us, making Washington somehow more glamorous. James Kimsey, the AOL co-founder, told me then that Jordan would join Slatkin and Placido Domingo, at the Washington Opera, as public faces of the city's cultural renaissance.

"Big people make an impact. They add a lot of pizzazz," he said. "You will see a lot of change in a short time. There's a metamorphosis in the power structure of the city as the older regime kind of fades away."

But to be honest, not one of those great artists made much difference beyond his own stage. In the cases of Jordan and Slatkin, it's not even clear that they played much of a transformational role in their field of play. The arrival of an accomplished outsider, trumpeted by high hopes and expansive talk, does little to change intractable urban ills or even the spirit of the city.

Still we dream of the silver bullet. In Slatkin's case, there were moments when he took a second-tier orchestra and made it something to talk about. When he decided to live here rather than in any of the other world capitals where he was conducting, when he showed up to conduct the $5 family concerts, when he brought local celebrities onstage to help create Saint-Saens's "Carnival of the Animals," Slatkin seemed eager to reach beyond the symphony's subscriber base to help classical music regain a place in the hearts of all.

But it was not to be. As Slatkin recently told The Washington Post's Anne Midgette, he was stretched too thin, was distracted by personal problems and never paid the attention necessary to push the NSO to a more prominent place in the lives of Washingtonians. Indeed, in the later years of his tenure, Slatkin's thunder was stolen by the Baltimore Symphony, with its new hall in Bethesda and its new conductor, Marin Alsop, who came in with very similar fanfare and seemed to connect in a deeper way.

Fourteen years ago, at his first concert here, Slatkin wowed a crowd packed with Cabinet members, senators, media heavyweights and the region's new tech elite. The musicians loved him, too. He chose as the heart of that first program Aaron Copland's Third Symphony, a soaring piece of Americana that brought out Slatkin's every emotion and reached to his core: the American identity he hoped to attach to the NSO.

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