Leonard Slatkin is back in town, onstage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and last night he led the National Symphony Orchestra in a program that only he could have assembled.
Most of his stocks in trade were there -- some English music, conducted lovingly, from the heart; an urgent, spacious, meticulously synchronized and robustly good-humored rendition of a 20th-century masterpiece; a charming lagniappe, by Slatkin himself, to close the evening. On the debit side, there was also a deeply derivative world premiere by another of the youngish, splashy American composer-orchestrators whom Slatkin, against all the evidence, continues to fancy.
The program began with the "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," secular holy music by Ralph Vaughan Williams that sounded both antiquated and curiously modern (Gorecki, anyone?) in this rapt performance. The NSO seemed a gigantic organ (there were moments when I could almost hear pipes wheeze), with rich bass resonance and sumptuous, lyrical playing by four soloists -- violinists Nurit Bar-Josef and Marissa Regni, violist Daniel Foster and cellist David Hardy. This is turning into one of the finest string sections around.
Stravinsky's complete "Petrouchka" made up most of the second half of the program -- music that still seems radical after almost 100 years. But the radicalism is worldly, friendly and suffused with playful charm; for these reasons, I have always preferred it to the ferocious "Rite of Spring," as I prefer Voltaire to Robespierre. Slatkin coaxed playing of bright, cold, vivid color from his splendid ensemble. The raucous drum solos were played from the back of the hall, which was an engaging innovation the first time it happened but tended to upset the collective balance as the piece went along. Still, it was an exciting performance -- and Slatkin's little "encore" at the end, titled "Fin," proved a happy chaser.
On a first hearing, Stewart Wallace's "Skvera for Electric Guitar and Orchestra" struck me as 35 minutes of orchestral pastiche. At the end, I still had no real idea what Wallace's compositional voice sounded like or, program notes aside, what he really wanted to say with that voice. Everything seemed borrowed and it was an easy guess as to what Wallace might have been listening to: some Stravinsky, some Kurt Weill, a little klezmer, some San Francisco-style "improv" a la Jefferson Airplane or Quicksilver Messenger Service, some jazzy blues (or was it bluesy jazz?). In the last movement, there was a twitching, martial crib from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 so blatant that Wallace acknowledged it upfront. Marc Ribot was the dedicated soloist: He buzzed and roared and twanged appropriately (Dick Dale's Hawaiian surf music crested by a couple of times) and never attempted to score points through sheer loudness.
It is always a risky venture for a composer to quote music by others, as the endeavor usually reflects badly on the new material. (Think of all those Charles Ives works that only come to life when he throws in "The Battle Cry of Freedom" or "Bringing In the Sheaves.") Wallace incorporated not only time-tested music but an actual historical recording by the Ukrainian cantor Yossele Rosenblatt in the third movement of "Skvera." Not surprisingly, it was the best part of the piece: The ghostly eloquence of this sweet, high, lost voice made for a moment of grafted magic.
The program will be repeated this afternoon at 1:30 and tomorrow night at 8.