The National Symphony Orchestra's gala 60th birthday concert for Music Director Leonard Slatkin last night at the Kennedy Center called to mind two fabled television programs of the past -- "This Is Your Life" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."
"This Is Your Life," a 1950s version of "reality TV," made its reputation by reuniting various important figures from the past of a celebrated guest for an orgy of nostalgia. And so, in that spirit, last night we heard several of Slatkin's buddies from Juilliard School days (violinists Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman, pianists Emanuel Ax, Joseph Kalichstein and Jeffrey Siegel) as well as works by John Williams and the late Henry Mancini, representing the world of Hollywood film music into which Slatkin was born.
"The Ed Sullivan Show," which ran from the 1950s into the 1970s, was the logical, mass-media outgrowth of the vaudeville theaters that used to line Broadway. One act followed another, and then another, until a parade of performers had passed by. The purview of Sullivan's show was broad enough to encompass opera singers (Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters), rock bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Doors) and a squeaky mouse puppet known as Topo Gigio, often in distressingly close proximity.
Both shows were more fun than they were substantial -- but they were fun, sometimes, and so were the best parts of Slatkin's concert. Only the most churlish of double-domes would complain that, say, following Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins and Strings with Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" was an aesthetic nightmare, or that Michel Camilo's flash-jazz "Tropical Jam" was not a natural aural antecedent to the finale from Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. No, this was best thought of as a roast, a celebration, a night of high spirits; indeed, the musical part of the program demanded no more searching and serious a post-facto analysis than would an unusually well-lubricated New Year's Eve party.
Williams's "Summon the Heroes," all brass and blare, opened the evening. With its cheerful derivations from Aaron Copland and Hollywood flash, it might have been subtitled "Fanfare for the Common Jedi," and the NSO gave it an appropriately 70mm performance under Slatkin. Next, Midori sailed flawlessly through the last movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, while Zukerman did his best to keep the orchestra playing at nearly the same tempo. Vivaldi's Concerto featured Joshua Bell, Elmar Oliveira, Midori, Perlman and Zukerman. Five violinists? Well, yes -- in the first movement Zukerman played his instrument while Perlman played at being a conductor, and in the last two movements the duties were reversed. Oh, well -- as Ginger Rogers's mother used to say, "Share and share alike -- that's democracy."
James Galway, as fine and fluent a flutist as the world affords, was woefully underemployed in two of Mancini's lesser ditties -- the aforementioned "Baby Elephant Walk" (which the audience, inexplicably, was instructed to punctuate with cries of "Leonard!") and the theme from "The Pink Panther." The first half of the program closed with the world premiere of a new piece by Peter Schickele in his fictional guise as P.D.Q. Bach, the "last and least of Bach's 20 children." Titled "Eine kleine Kiddiemusik, S. One Potato Two Potato Three Potato Four," this proved a friendly, silly romp in which players hit themselves over the head with tuned plastic tubing, bounced balls around the stage, waved noisemakers and generally reverted. Schickele is a funny man: If most of the jokes were oldies, they remain goodies, and the players -- Schickele, Slatkin, pianist Katia Labeque (in what was surely her plastic tubing debut) and conductor Murry Sidlin -- seemed to be having a blast.
Still, just about now, one was aching for a little gravitas. It came, just after intermission, with a performance of Mozart's Concerto in E-flat for Two Pianos and Orchestra with different soloists for each movement -- Ax and Kalichstein, Katia and Marielle Labeque, Siegel and Jean-Yves Thibaudet -- and it was both beautiful and poised. Then it was back to Schickele with the finale of a work titled "Chapbook" for one piano, three pianists, six hands, complete with quotations from "Chopsticks." Slatkin and Siegel crashed through Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" Variations; Camilo was even louder in a fiercely ebullient, heavily accented "Tropical Jam." Bell offered such a soulful rendition of the finale from the Bruch concerto that one only wished we might have heard the whole thing. The booming, industrious finale from the "Organ" Symphony by Camille Saint-Saens, with soloist William Neil, came next, and then a set of cute, polystylistic variations on "Happy Birthday" by Marvin Hamlisch brought the proceedings to an end.
For better and for worse, the evening was Slatkin all over. There was variety and humor, there were fancy guests (albeit the same ones who always seem to drop in at Slatkin's place). There was showbiz galore (complete with spoken testaments), there was some solid (and some sloppy) playing from the NSO. And finally -- no way around it -- there was a certain innate tastelessness to the whole endeavor. Rarely have so many talented people come together to produce an evening with such a paucity of memorable music. If no other conductor could have produced such a show, very few other conductors would have permitted it.