Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony Orchestra’s previous music director, returns this week playing to his strengths, with a rarity by Rachmaninoff, a standard concerto and a thorny modern work. A good crowd turned out at the Kennedy Center for Thursday evening’s performance.
The curtain raiser was the local premiere of “Rewind,” the first work the NSO has played by 31-year-old British-born composer Anna Clyne. A study in urban chaos as well as an effort to musically depict a stop/start rewinding of a video scene, the work’s best feature is its brevity. We’ve heard all this before, many times: riotous percussion; fragmented atonal motifs; downward smears from the brass; scurrying, chugging strings punctuated by sharp tutti explosions; and an overall texture of furiously jejune busywork.
The evening’s soloist, the telegenic French cellist Gautier Capucon, offered a sophisticated rendition of the Saint-Saens Concerto No. 1 in A Minor. A small man with a large sound, the artist drew a wonderfully rich palette of sounds from his Gofriller cello; the finale’s big tune in the low register and the whispered colors of his first entrance in the Allegretto were highlights. Slatkin’s accompaniment was deft, the orchestra never overpowered and the many competing voices in the first movement’s development section were perfectly balanced. It’s not unusual for a soloist to offer an encore but rare for the orchestra to take part; here, the Massenet “Meditation” was delivered with Gallic charm, nothing overdone.
It’s remarkable that the NSO, with two music directors who specialized in Russian music, never played two of Rachmaninoff’s major orchestral works until relatively recently: the Symphonic Dances in 1988 and the Third Symphony a decade later. Still, the orchestra has the style well in hand, and Slatkin led a mostly successful reading of the symphony. The second movement, in particular — a combined slow movement and scherzo — displays at its finest the composer’s quintessential mix of musical passion, creative orchestral color and structural logic.
The NSO is as good as it is today due in part to Slatkin’s work; a large number of the musicians onstage were his hires, including all the string principals. But his conducting has always been limited; his need to place the stress of virtually every beat at all times, including in slower, lyrical passages, paradoxically results in less precision, as the players have to adjust and readjust their natural phrasing to conform to an unnecessarily intrusive element. Although Slatkin invoked lush and committed playing from all sections, the music also lacked that last ounce of freedom and accuracy that the orchestra is achieving on its best nights with its current director. Still, the concert is well worth hearing for the repertoire and the soloist. The final performance is Saturday night at 8.
Battey is a freelance writer.