In this, its 75th-anniversary year, the National Symphony Orchestra can look back with considerable pride on its past, while celebrating its present with what may be its most glittering season ever. Still, behind the scenes, much of the orchestra's energy will necessarily be focused on the future -- the NSO's current music director, Leonard Slatkin, is stepping down by the end of the 2007-08 season, and the maneuvering and speculation over who might replace him on the podium is about to begin in earnest.
It's almost impossible to resist handicapping the field, and we'll indulge in some of that below. But whatever qualities the NSO will be seeking in its sixth music director -- and everybody seems to have different ideas on what these should be -- will depend in part on the way the orchestra has evolved under the batons of the five very different men who have led the ensemble over the past three-quarters of a century.
Indeed, considering that Washington is the home of the oldest professional musical organization in the country -- the "President's Own" United States Marine Band, created by an act of Congress in 1798 -- it took our city a long time to form a viable symphony orchestra.
There was the Washington Philharmonic, which lasted for barely a year around the turn of the 20th century. From 1902 to 1905, Reginald de Koven, best remembered as the composer of the once-ubiquitous wedding anthem "Oh Promise Me," led something called the Washington Symphony Orchestra; an attempt to revive the ensemble in 1907 failed after three concerts. And so, when an ad hoc group of musicians, provisionally known as "The National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C.," took the stage of DAR Constitution Hall and played its first program on Jan. 31, 1930, a listener might have been forgiven for doubting the troupe's chances for longevity.
But public response was overwhelmingly favorable, and the renamed National Symphony Orchestra soon announced its first formal season of 24 concerts for 1931-32. Today the NSO is a full-time ensemble of 100 musicians, playing 175 concerts a year, with an annual operating budget of approximately $30 million.
Christoph von Dohnanyi, who was the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1982 to 2002, and Kurt Masur, the music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 2002, will make their NSO debuts next spring. Other visiting maestros include Lorin Maazel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Helmuth Rilling and NSO music director laureate Mstislav Rostropovich. Included in the roster are three men -- James Conlon, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and Stephane Deneve -- who might conceivably be in the running to replace Slatkin.
The season's grand finale will be three performances of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8, to be led by Slatkin next June. Because of the enormous forces it requires -- eight vocal soloists, several choruses, oversize orchestra and booming pipe organ -- the Eighth has been dubbed the "Symphony of a Thousand" (although the NSO will make do with a mere 500 performers). Virtually every vocal ensemble that has any association with the orchestra -- the Cathedral Choral Society, Choral Arts Society, Master Chorale of Washington, Washington Chorus and Children's Chorus of Washington -- will participate, and the leading soprano parts will be sung by Jane Eaglen and Christine Brewer.
Slatkin is the orchestra's fifth music director: He was preceded by Rostropovich (who led the NSO from 1978 to 1994), Antal Dorati (1970-77), Howard Mitchell (1949-69) and Hans Kindler, who assembled that first, speculative concert in 1930 and then went on to lead the orchestra from 1931 to 1949.
The late Milton Schwartz, who played violin in the NSO from its inception until his retirement in 1981, has left a memoir of the orchestra's early days. Schwartz had been employed at the Earle Theater (later renamed the Warner), which was then a film house. "I was standing on the corner of 13th and F streets between shows, watching the world go by, when this seedy-looking person in an old coat and battered hat approached me," he wrote. "I thought, 'This must be a handout.' He said, 'Permit me to introduce myself. I am Hans Kindler.' He was a famous cellist and the first chair of the cello section of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I had heard of him and heard him play. He was indeed very fine.
"He continued, 'I am here to form a symphony orchestra. I just heard you play and I like you very much. Would you be interested in joining my efforts?' Well, talkies were taking over the film industry. The handwriting was on the wall. Soon afterward I was out of a job. At about that time I received a call to attend a rehearsal for what is now the NSO."
Kindler built the NSO rather as a magpie builds a nest. As the WPA Guide to Washington, originally published in 1942, put it: "Potential symphony players had left Washington during the years of musical drought, and Kindler found it necessary to combine local talent with musicians imported from New York, Philadelphia and Boston." But it worked -- even in the worst year of the Great Depression, Kindler managed to create his orchestra.
The first NSO players were paid $40 a week for three rehearsals and a single concert at Constitution Hall, every Thursday afternoon, for five months of the year.
"The long months without a paycheck were somehow gotten through," Schwartz recalled. "Some of the musicians had to drive cabs or become salesmen. Occasional engagements like weddings or at the Washington Cathedral were like drops of water on the desert. An occasional quartet concert or solo engagement in wealthy patronesses' homes helped a little, but it was tough sledding."
Moreover, by all reports, Kindler was a deeply difficult man. "He'd find your vulnerabilities and embarrass you in front of the whole orchestra," Schwartz recalled. "Kindler would make nasty, hurtful comments. I think this was to cover up his considerable inadequacies as a conductor. There were different concertmasters and assistants every season because they couldn't stand Kindler or Kindler was dissatisfied with them."
Howard Mitchell, the orchestra's second music director, was a very different character.
As Ted Libbey observed in "The National Symphony Orchestra," his lively and authoritative history, Mitchell "personified the optimism that permeated Washington and America after World War II; he socialized, schmoozed and charmed the ladies of high Washington society, fitting right in, playing the role of music director as he played the cello. He saw the symphony as a necessary component of the city's social and cultural life, an institution to be supported by the enlightened few and used to educate and enrich the many."
Still, despite the new conductor's many attractive qualities, Libbey is hardly alone in considering the Mitchell years "the artistic nadir of the National Symphony." Mitchell's conducting was generally judged awkward and prosaic, and the orchestra itself was still only a part-time operation. As the NSO's longtime principal cellist John Martin recalled to Libbey, "there were so many years I didn't know whether I'd have a job when I came back in the fall. I would borrow money, live on it through the summer, and pay it back during the season from my salary." Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that the orchestra's personnel changed from year to year. "If you were good, you left," Martin said, overstating the case only slightly.
Yet it was under Mitchell that the orchestra made its first overseas tour, and a spectacular one at that. The NSO spent the entire summer of 1959 in Latin America, playing 68 concerts in 19 countries, with at least one American composition on every program. An initial European tour followed in 1967. But by the time Mitchell stepped down as music director at the end of the 1968-69 season, relations between players and management were at an all-time low. A bitter strike was the result: Libbey quotes a "well placed observer" who believes the work stoppage and its aftermath left "a discredited, disoriented, discouraged bunch of performers, a less than competent board, a justly hostile press and a distrustful public."
Antal Dorati to the rescue. Finally, Washington had the wherewithal to seek out and engage a master conductor. He had studied with the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, served as music director of the leading orchestras in both Dallas and Minneapolis, and made an enormous number of recordings. (He would eventually record all 104 of Haydn's symphonies.) Dorati arrived in 1970 and set about promptly to remake the National Symphony Orchestra, instilling firm discipline and new pride.
The late Elizabeth Mensh, a charter subscriber to the NSO who attended every concert she could for almost 70 years, credited Dorati with "changing the orchestra forever. A huge change -- just night and day," she told me in 1996. "He was attractive, dignified, professional, a complete musician." In 1971, Dorati oversaw the NSO's move from dowdy and acoustically challenged Constitution Hall into the brand-new Kennedy Center, which he later called "the greatest success of its kind I have ever encountered. From the day of its opening, it has upgraded the cultural appetite and taste of the city."
But Dorati did not like the NSO board -- "Little did I know what a hornets' nest I was stepping into," he later recalled -- and the feeling was mutual. Dorati had intended to stay in Washington for a decade; instead, the board let him go after seven years, informing him of its decision only a few minutes before he was due to lead the orchestra in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." There was a new prospect on the horizon: Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, who was widely considered the greatest cellist in the world and who had just made his American conducting debut with the NSO.
The Rostropovich era, which lasted 17 years, is still controversial. Nobody denied his mastery of the cello, or his charisma, or the welling love for music that informed everything he did. And yet his tenure, while bringing the NSO unprecedented international attention, was marked by a curious inertia.
He led some music magnificently -- especially the Russian repertory, which he loved and understood as have few others -- but, as a conductor, it would not be entirely unfair to describe Rostropovich as a brilliant, fitfully inspired amateur. Under his direction, the orchestra lurched along -- some splendid Shostakovich or Tchaikovsky one week would be followed by what seemed impulsive and unbalanced renditions of the core repertory. A listener often had the sense that Rostropovich was operating on pure feeling and, while emotional commitment is obviously an important part of making music, it could not quite compensate for a lack of technical control.
Some of the problems facing the NSO during this time were inherent in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which had proven to have acoustical shortcomings not much less debilitating than the ones that had plagued Constitution Hall.
At the older house, sound simply didn't travel; if you closed your eyes during an orchestral concert at Constitution Hall, it was easy to imagine that somebody had put a small radio on the stage far away and then let it play. At the Kennedy Center, the sound projected outward, not only to the parquet level but loudly and clearly to the very top row. So far, so good. The problem was not so much one of projection as it was one of cross-communication; the sound went out but it did not go across. It was entirely possible for two musicians to share the stage and never be able to hear what each other was up to, making it an enormous challenge for players and conductor to shape any kind of coherent performance.
The Kennedy Center Concert Hall was gutted for renovation only four months after Leonard Slatkin took over as music director in 1996. After the reopening, in late 1997, the NSO began to sound better than it ever had. Indeed, the early years of Slatkin's tenure will likely be ranked along with Dorati's first few seasons as essential periods of growth for the orchestra. Slatkin's clear beat and his brisk, authoritative comments during rehearsal were bracing and salutary. Several key appointments within the orchestra gave it a more diverse and sumptuous tone: by now, Slatkin has named the principal players for all five string sections (first and second violins, viola, cello and bass), three assistant principal string players, and principal bassoon, horn, tuba and timpani. It is a substantially different -- and better -- NSO than when he took over.
Yet Slatkin has his weaknesses, too, and they grew more and more apparent with each passing season: an occasionally lackadaisical approach to rehearsing, repetitive and sometimes gimmicky programming, and a curious lack of taste, whether in some of the soloists he engages or in much of the American music he champions. And so when it was announced last November in a terse press release, under circumstances that are still mysterious, that he would move on at the end of the 2007-08 season, it seemed the right decision for all concerned. As Slatkin himself put it, in a short statement that was released with the announcement: "The goals which I set when I began my tenure here will have been accomplished. In my opinion, the NSO now ranks amongst the world's great orchestras."
Getting there, certainly, and Slatkin deserves a good deal of the credit. But who will take the orchestra to its next level?
It is too early to speculate with much authority on who will become the sixth music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Slatkin's contract runs for another three seasons (although he is thought to be actively pursuing other jobs, especially Daniel Barenboim's soon-to-be-vacated position with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), and the search process is still in its beginning stages.
My own guess is that the NSO will go for a conductor as different from Slatkin as Slatkin was from Rostropovich. Orchestras don't usually want their conductors to seem sequels to their predecessors. The fact that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has just named Marin Alsop to replace Yuri Temirkanov as music director starting in 2007 makes it even more likely that the NSO will look for a complete change of direction, as Alsop specializes in much of the same repertory Slatkin loves -- conservative American composers, such as Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein, and jazz crossover material -- and the rivalry between Baltimore and the NSO is bound to increase with the BSO's new residency at the Music Center at Strathmore.
I'm sure the NSO would be thrilled if Michael Tilson Thomas (currently in San Francisco), David Robertson (St. Louis), Riccardo Muti (freelance, based in Italy), or James Levine (Boston) would take the helm when Slatkin leaves -- who wouldn't? (These are the first names on the wish lists of every search committee.) Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, there are the three gentlemen mentioned toward the beginning of this article -- Deneve, de Burgos and Conlon, all fine musicians, all un- or under-affiliated artists with proven track records here.
Osmo Vanska might make a brilliant music director, but he seems happy in Minneapolis. Perhaps one of Vanska's fellow Finns -- Mikko Franck, Jukka-Pekka Saraste or Sakari Oramo -- might be tempted. (Finland produces conductors as an orchard drops apples.) Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center (which officially incorporated the NSO in 1986), is close to the charismatic Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. Would Gergiev consider the job? Would he fit?
An ideal conductor combines the best virtues of shaman, athletic coach, psychologist, casting director and traffic cop -- planning programs, rehearsing the orchestra, inspiring the musicians to give their best, nurturing new talent and making sure that the various players' performances don't collide. One thing is certain: Whatever conductor, ideal or otherwise, wins the NSO will have a grand, gleaming and protean ensemble to work with, a far cry from the scrappy band that used to play at Constitution Hall on occasional Thursday afternoons. May the orchestra's next 75 years be even more distinguished and exciting than its first.