Leonard Slatkin led the National Symphony Orchestra through the very best sort of family concert -- lively, varied, engaging for young and old -- yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center.
The 65-minute program contained the greatest of American overtures (Leonard Bernstein's bespangled introduction to "Candide"), a genuine rarity by our most distinguished composer (Aaron Copland's "Down a Country Lane," a miniature commissioned by Life magazine), some fast and nifty entertainment pieces (works by Ferde Grofe, Morton Gould and John Williams) and a world premiere by the contemporary composer David Del Tredici.
Del Tredici, best known for his numerous and exuberant settings of the "Alice" books by Lewis Carroll, here took on another classic of childhood -- Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," adapted for narrator and orchestra by Ray Warman. It didn't quite work in this first performance -- the huge orchestra regularly drowned out the narrator, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and I suspect the piece itself may be somewhat overlong. Certainly my mind was wandering long before it was over.
Still, there was much to enjoy, particularly Del Tredici's masterly ability to convey virtually anything in music -- whether nagging wives, gunshots, twittering birds or distant thunder -- with wit and virtuosity. He also managed to saturate the story in a dreamlike atmosphere; orchestral interludes, in particular, took on a childlike sense of wonder. And Mitchell proved adept at bringing distinct vocal inflections to every character he played, turning each one into a full-fledged personality.
The whole afternoon represented Slatkin at his best. His comments to the audience were succinct and informative, never condescending. The orchestral playing took on a sense of relaxed, collegial spontaneity that never crossed the line into sloppiness. And it was a good idea to project live close-ups of Slatkin and the musicians on a gigantic video monitor above the stage, permitting us to watch as, say, violinist Elisabeth Adkins and bassoonist Sue Heineman did their admirable things.
I rather wish Slatkin and Mitchell had agreed upon a tempo before they tried to collaborate on "The Impossible Dream," which both sped up and dragged out again and again, occasionally simultaneously. And John Williams's music for "E.T." may work well in the theater as accompaniment for the film, but it seemed both overly ornate and threadbare on its own. Never mind -- the kids seemed to be having a blast, the parents were rewarded by some exciting playing, and it was a happy way to spend an early afternoon at the Kennedy Center.