A bright and buoyant St. Louis Symphony arrived at the Kennedy Center last night to show off its new conductor, the all-American Leonard Slatkin. Or perhaps it was the other way around, and an exuberant Slatkin was showing off his orchestra. The two have been associated for so many years now, going back to Slatkin's start as assistant conductor back on 1968, that their personalities seem to have merged. Together they make music in a fresh and engaging fashion which wins the heart.
The two orchestral works were well chosen to highlight the ensemble's strengths. The opening "Benvenuto Cellini" overture of Berlioz sparkled under Slatkin's energetic direction which drew a spirited response from his musicians. The bountiful melodies of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony gave the strings, particularly the violins, a chance to display their singing tone and expressive line. Slatkin had the work well in hand, pacing it with a subtly nuanced ebb and flow. The first and third movements still seemed a bit long-winded, a fault that most likely lies in the writing itself.
Pianist John Browning joined the orchestra for Mozart's Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, in a performance notable for its vigor rather than its grace. Neither Browning nor the orchestra found that interior strength of Mozart which paradoxially, only reveals itself when the music takes on an effortless beauty.