Years after leaving the NSO as music director, Leonard Slatkin showed his forte remains recent American music with a program including Bernstein’s “Songfest,” which the orchestra commissioned 40 years ago. (David Duchon-Doris)
Classical music critic

It was an evening of happy commemoration. The National Symphony Orchestra played two pieces by Leonard Bernstein, “Slava! A political overture” and “Songfest,” almost exactly 40 years after it gave both works their world premieres. On the podium was another erstwhile NSO fixture and another Leonard, Leonard Slatkin, the NSO’s music director for 12 years, leading exactly the kind of music — energetic, rhythmically complex, less-known, and American — that he does best.

“Songfest” is certainly, especially given the widespread adulation of Bernstein, a piece that could stand to be heard more often. To be sure, it’s an uneven work, but I suspect the real issue is that it’s not as easily melodic as, say, West Side Story; it puts Bernstein’s genius (I don’t use the word lightly) for a good tune through a filter of ostensible sophistication, refracting it into fragments and challenging harmonies. Bernstein’s weakness was in tilting at intellectual windmills, trying to prove himself the equal of the greats, and the effort is palpable in some of “Songfest’s” 12 songs, which aim to represent the variety of the American experience in poems by everyone from Lawrence Ferlinghetti to Edna St. Vincent Millay. The high quality and variety of the texts, indeed, is one distinguishing feature of the cycle, once you’ve gotten past the disjunction of so many abrupt changes of tone and verbal texture (including one in Spanish by Julia de Burgos).

Another reason the cycle is not more often done, perhaps, is that it calls for six vocal soloists, an expensive luxury for an orchestra. The NSO’s solution was to use singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program of the Washington National Opera: young American singers gaining great experience by appearing in an all-American melting pot of a piece. A drawback was that young opera singers don’t get a lot of experience in blending their voices, and the songs that called for all six singers, including the opening “To the Poem” by Frank O’Hara and the closing “Israfel” by Edgar Allan Poe, sounded mushy. But there were some fine solo moments by singers who have, in their months and years with the program, been audibly finding their voices. Christopher Kenney and Leah Hawkins sang well in the tough and perhaps overemotional section dealing with race, a juxtaposition of Langston Hughes’s “I, Too, Sing America” and June Jordan’s “Okay, ‘Negroes.’” And Hunter Enoch got a beautiful showcase for his rich light baritone in what you might call the “gay song,” Walt Whitman’s “To What You Said,” one of the prettiest and most poignant songs of the set.

After all of the bristling energy of the first half of the program, the second half was Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” another feat of bristling energy of a rather different sort. It may have been a little too much bristle for one night. Slatkin is a fine technician and mastered the complex piece with a kind of fluid ease, but it was a little too easy, sounding a little bit sluggish, without the bite that this acerbic brilliant shifting soundscape veritably demands. One sensed the orchestra beginning to drift away, losing some of its focus, only to be recalled again by a moment of energy — or, in the break between the piece’s two sections, a moment of crisp silence. The performance was not without its merits. But the strength of the night was Slatkin in America, and was displayed from the very start of the evening, with the delightfully campy potpourri of the Slava overture, written for Slatkin’s predecessor, Mstislav Rostropovich, and with the same sloppy larger-than-life exuberance that characterized that conductor. It captured several chapters of the NSO and showed the orchestra at its best.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the singer who sang “I, Too, Sing America.” It was Christopher Kenney, not Frederick Ballentine.