Debacles in classical music are a lot different in the Washington of today than in the Vienna of the 19th century. In December 1877, the Vienna Philharmonic premiered the third symphony of Anton Bruckner. The enormous work unfolds over more than an hour and offers an impassioned spirituality that must have sounded totally foreign to the conservative, waltz-loving audience. The hapless and overly sensitive Bruckner himself was conducting that evening. When he turned around to meet the applause after the final measures, he found only a handful of people still remaining in the hall. The crushed Bruckner was left to commiserate with his students, among them a teenage Gustav Mahler.

Today’s disasters in musical performance look a lot more innocuous. Last April, the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), under the baton of musical director Leonard Slatkin, premiered the composer Richard Danielpour’s piano concerto for left hand, Zodiac Variations. An attempt to create musical images of the various astrological symbols, the 30-minute work runs an original theme through 12 variations.

Danielpour composed the work in a soaring Romantic idiom that includes syrupy melodies, vivid instrumental colors, and steady rhythms—a contrast to the static, spiky sounds typically associated with music written soon after Bruckner’s last completed work, from 1895.

The audience’s reaction to the Danielpour piece was polite: two ovations, a special round of applause for the composer in attendance, and then an orderly exit for intermission conversation and cocktails. There was no booing, and no one furiously bolted to the doors in the middle of the performance—nightmares that every orchestra fears when performing new music. Nor, though, was there a single bar of music so memorable as to outlast the closing measures. Nor was there any sense of exuberance, despite the composer’s claim that the work is “celebratory.”

Bruckner’s music offended the ears of its audience; Danielpour’s barely registered. It turns out that the music of Danielpour is as forgettable as it is approachable. “Music that strives after accessibility,” writes the British musicologist Charles Wilson, “rarely stirs more than the mildest interest.”

Slatkin himself admits that he was “worried” about the direction of Danielpour’s music, noting that the 46-year-old composer’s “lyrical” style might be better suited to opera. Slatkin says he agreed to put the piece on the program only because the composer likes the NSO and “just happened to offer the premiere.”

Slatkin’s willingness to program works such as Danielpour’s is illustrative of the limitations of the maestro’s leadership of the NSO. Although Washington, D.C., is a rich city for classical music in general, it has commonly been considered an orchestral backwater. Whether the NSO can overcome its perennial middling status depends in part on its ability to create a genuine demand for new music among its audience.

The gifted, erudite Slatkin is feverishly promoting living American composers in the hope of stirring audience interest in new music, which has been largely missing from the country’s concert halls since the mid-’60s. It’s a noble undertaking, but it seems doomed to fail. Slatkin’s sensibilities continually draw him to a narrow group of American composers best described as neo-Romantics. This genre is accessible, but it incorporates more musical styles that can be developed coherently. Jeremy Eichler, a prolific music writer in New York, has called the work of Slatkin’s American heroes “the music of indigestion.”

For the NSO, the music of indigestion is a play-it-safe strategy in the face of a stodgy Washington audience. Instead of challenging local listeners with pieces that might shock and offend, Slatkin is sticking to cloying, neo-Romantic composers who do neither. The end result: NSO concerts are mostly missing the work of adventuresome composers—work that could help revive classical music as a living art form.

The NSO Audience

At a time when public art subsidies continue to decline, any orchestra’s success hinges on a retail dynamic: the ability to attract and please its audience. According to David Kitto, the director of marketing for the Kennedy Center, where the NSO performs, the orchestra’s audience is not “fundamentally different than [that of] any other major orchestra.” The NSO crowd tends to be elderly, highly educated, and, above all, wealthy. The bulk of NSO seats are filled by subscribers, who must decide months in advance to pay hundreds of dollars to reserve good seats for the nine-month season—a decision even the most fervid music-loving young professional finds difficult to make. Kitto, formerly an administrator at Carnegie Hall, notes that the NSO audience appears “extremely dedicated” and includes a “very healthy” group of donors, who kick in substantial funds to support the orchestra’s range of activities, which go well beyond concerts.

The combination of wealth and advanced age suggests that the average NSO concertgoer is a pretty conservative animal, one that may enjoy the prestige of the Kennedy Center and its view of the Potomac River as much as the music itself. Like crowds in most other cities with major orchestras, the D.C. audience wants to hear its share of the concert warhorses: the symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Mahler. Although Kitto claims that NSO audiences “are receptive to new works,” the NSO’s annual subscription campaign primarily advertises the 19th-century masterworks, highlighting Tchaikovsky and Mahler in the campaign brochure’s “Essential Listening” sidebar.

Chalk up the NSO’s downplaying of new music to Arnold Schoenberg, the turn-of-the-century Austrian-born composer. He inspired a generation of followers to converge around an inaccessible composing idiom known as

“twelve-tone” writing. Schoenberg constructed elaborate theories to support the new composing language, which essentially dispenses with melody and conventional notions of harmony.

Composer Steven Mackey, a professor of composition at Princeton University who once dabbled in the dissonant, atonal language, explains that Schoenberg and his followers severely damaged the general public’s appetite for new music—to the extreme that “audiences still only think of Schoenberg” when presented with contemporary music. Referring to the German city where the Schoenberg true believers converged to discuss their ideas, he says, “Darmstadt was a blip in music history….We thought it was important, but it was not.”

The public’s deeply rooted aversion to the atonal genre raises a scary prospect for orchestras nationwide: Put provocative new music on the concert program and play to an empty house. Orchestras have to be especially sensitive to this dynamic in a slumping economy. Several orchestras across the country, including the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and even the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra, are facing enormous deficits. The NSO, too, forever faces the risk of losing its constituency. There are many other excellent performing-arts organizations in the area, as well as many traditional (often free) chamber-music series.

Yet even though audiences crave a healthy dose of tried-and-true masterworks, some orchestras are slowly beginning to realize that the performance of contemporary music can actually help expand the classical-concert audience.

In San Francisco, the charismatic American conductor Michael Tilson Thomas assumed the podium in 1994, around the same time Slatkin took the helm of the NSO. A protege# of the great Leonard Bernstein, Tilson Thomas is a forceful advocate for new music, having gone so far as to start an “American Mavericks” festival that performs about as dissonant and inaccessible pieces as you can imagine. For several days, not a single soaring melody can be heard in the Bay City’s Davies Symphony Hall, and the event attracts a young, hip audience.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra proved the same point under David Zinman throughout the ’80s and early ’90s. Like the NSO, the Baltimore Symphony is not typically ranked among the very top orchestras in the country, but to living composers such as Mackey, the orchestra under Zinman was a sparkling institution: “The players made important contributions to American music, and the audience was proud of them.”

And if there’s still any doubt that orchestras can experiment with modernity, just look at dowdy, Rust Belt Cleveland, whose first-rate orchestra has thrilled its audience with contemporary European composers. Maestro Christoph von Dohnanyi, who just completed an enormously successful 18-year tenure as musical director, was able to turn the podium over last spring to composer-conductor Oliver Knussen for a weekend of his music, along with some of the lesser-known works of Stravinsky. The result was anything but the meat-and-potatoes program of Beethoven and Mozart, and the audience was there for it because Cleveland classical fans trust the intelligent, dignified Dohnanyi to put the best music before them, however atonal or difficult.

Common to the contemporary-music approaches of these orchestras is an energizing interplay between the older concert warhorses and newer, sometimes challenging music. Putting on new music can lead to direct improvements in players’ technique because they are “excited to perform new music, and practice more as a result,” says Mackey. He adds that “a piece of music is not an artifact, and conductors who perform Beethoven [and] also perform music of our time will bring a vivid sense of reality to music.” That sense of authenticity has a direct impact on subscription renewals and, more important, on the quality of performances. Orchestras that perform the music of today have something that others simply do not.

Slatkin’s Potential

Replicating the achievements of Dohnanyi, Zinman, and Tilson Thomas on the modern-music front is a task that requires extraordinary energy and talent in a musical director. It is, in short, a challenge custom-made for a man like Slatkin.

Slatkin comes out of the sensationalist school of conductors who deploy hyperkinetic gestures to shape the music. His beat is precise and snappy; directions for players’ entries in performance are firm yet not imperious. In an impassioned adagio, his face contorts, reflecting the mood of the music. At a giant crescendo, Slatkin’s arms wave vigorously, in a spectacle matched only by his foppish head of hair swirling around. It may be taking the comparison too far, but to watch Slatkin conduct is to get a picture of what it must have been like to observe a young Bernstein conduct in the ’60s, during his heyday with the New York Philharmonic.

All these antics might come across as contrived and affected if not for Slatkin’s professorial demeanor and obvious intelligence. He possesses a phenomenal musical memory and, without a score in front of him, can bring out the smallest detail from the music. And, like any good conductor, the maestro clearly puts in a great deal of forethought into his work, studying not only the music itself but also any biographical and historical information that might provide insight.

The refinement in Slatkin’s conducting stems in part from his upbringing, in Los Angeles. Both his parents were famous musicians, members of the renowned Hollywood String Quartet and frequent players in prominent film-studio orchestras of the ’50s. In several interviews, Slatkin has recalled musical evenings in his home with the likes of Igor Stravinsky. And the conductor’s learned air undoubtedly has something to do with his education at New York’s Juilliard School.

Slatkin first gained worldwide fame during his 17-year tenure as musical director of the St. Louis Symphony. It was in St. Louis that Slatkin was tagged with the term most often used to describe him, “orchestra-builder.” He took a regional orchestra barely known past the banks of the Mississippi, injected it with new players, polished its sound, and left it with a world-class reputation. A major recording contract, awards, and global tours were hallmarks of his tenure. It was a remarkable artistic collaboration by any measure, making Slatkin one of the most sought-after conductors and the target of a fierce recruitment campaign from the NSO, which culminated in a meeting with President Clinton and a formal offer in 1994.

When Slatkin actually arrived in D.C., in 1996, he immediately set out to improve the sound and expand the repertoire of the NSO. During the ’80s and early ’90s, when the NSO served under the cheerful gaze of the renowned Russian cellist and occasional conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, the orchestra’s balance and finesse had slipped severely. “Slava,” as his loyal fans affectionately call him, sought a big sound from the ensemble, sacrificing an important detail here, the requisite restraint there, in service to this sound. As long as the music drove relentlessly forward, bad intonation and missed entries did not matter. Depending on one’s loyalties, the result was variously described as gritty or sloppy. Slatkin prefers “harsh.”

Over his six years on the podium, Slatkin has banished Rostropovich’s brawny legacy in favor of a more elegant sound. The conductor’s appointments and arrangement of the players have injected more elegance into the 100-person ensemble. Balance, clarity, tone, and precision have all risen significantly. The players themselves are more responsive and alert; they seem to attack the music together.

The NSO can now sound convincing in a range of repertoire, from the traditional to the more contemporary. In April 2001, for example, Slatkin arranged a concert featuring the mystical sounds of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila. This hour-and-a-half-long composition is the modern French composer’s take on one of the great love stories, that of Tristram and Isolde, which also inspired Richard Wagner to write one of his most advanced operas. Joined by such talented soloists as the brilliant young pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Slatkin coaxed the NSO brass to deliver fine phrasing rivaled only by the precision and delicacy of the percussion. Lambert Orkis, the orchestra’s longtime pianist and a world-renowned accompanist, recalls it as the most exciting concert in which he has performed under Slatkin.

Slatkin acknowledges that the NSO cannot always achieve this level of playing, especially during the special festivals he has brought to Washington. “The playing is not the most polished,” says Slatkin of these runs through the music of a certain period, place, or style.

Orkis adds that the breadth of music covered more than compensates, speaking fondly of how the players’ counterparts in the London Symphony Orchestra—an orchestra known for its own large repertoire—were dazzled by the extensive programs during the NSO’s festival of British composers last year.

Slatkin further set out to change the NSO programs. Rostropovich put a lot of the Russian composers on whom he had grown up—and even some he knew personally—on the program. In his day, some of the NSO’s most successful nights featured the work of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. New compositions of American composers were programmed infrequently and performed with less vigor than the music of the Russians.

Slatkin likes Russian music, too, but because the NSO is based in the nation’s capital and actually has the word “national” in its name, he has decided to make the performance of new music by American composers a central part of his artistic direction. In his view, there is genuine reason to be excited about the sounds living Americans are producing. Slatkin shares some of Mackey’s thoughts about the “secular humanism” common to American composers, noting that the composers of today share a “real identity.”

Mackey puts it more bluntly, claiming that there are a lot of new compositions, such as his own, that, like “a big dog licking you in the face,” are spirited and friendly. Slatkin says that performing new music “helps him rethink” older pieces, and he notes that he is always looking for pieces with singular traits that make them stand out.

Performing contemporary music dovetails nicely with Slatkin’s international reputation. “People think of me as an American- and British-new-music specialist,” says Slatkin. Orchestras around the world invite Slatkin to conduct new music, even the craggy atmospheric scores that can tie less knowledgeable and skillful conductors in knots. In the past year, he has conducted contemporary works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, the latter in a much-praised performance of the third symphony of the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski.

Early on, Slatkin realized that it would be wise not to overdo the programming of new music for his own orchestra in Washington. Rarely, he notes, will a program be exclusively dedicated to contemporary works. Slatkin argues that one reason not to stray too far from the warhorses is that the composers of today are heavily influenced by past composers, “though they are couching the ideas in a different language and style.” Slatkin’s tastes in the more traditional masterworks center around certain European masters, especially Haydn, Beethoven, and Mahler; he admits that he has not done much Bruckner or Mozart. English composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams are extremely close to Slatkin’s heart—as are, of course, such American composers as Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and Aaron Copland.

The thrust of Slatkin’s work with American composers is to link the Washington audience with the wonders of live concerts and new music. And he knows how it feels to fall short: He also directs a major orchestra in London, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which often performs in a 3,000-seat hall yet may attract only 1,000 people for a concert. “It is depressing to go to their concerts,” says Slatkin, perhaps hinting at why he has decided to leave the BBC Symphony at the end of 2004. Slatkin wants to avoid that orchestra’s stale atmosphere with the NSO and fill the 2,500-seat Kennedy Center Concert Hall. So far, he says, he “is very pleased” with the results he has achieved.

Evolving Results

A tragic irony hovers over the progress Slatkin has made with the NSO: Though he has boosted the quality of playing, his very own predispositions, preferences, and commitments are keeping the whole enterprise from reaching ecstatic heights.

Much of the problem lies with Slatkin’s loyalties on the contemporary-music scene, which suit the expectations of the conservative D.C. audience. According to Mackey, contemporary classical music can be organized into two categories. On the one hand are the composers influenced by Claude Debussy, whose irregular rhythms and aqueous sounds forever changed music. On the other are the equally revolutionary but more abstract European composers who descend intellectually from Schoenberg and his disciples.

Consistent with his weakness for concert-hall cinema, Slatkin prefers the melodic, flowing, and tonal Debussy-influenced music. Next season, the NSO performs the work of such living composers as Edgar Meyer and Ned Rorem, whose American-folk- and French-inspired scores rarely include even a grain of abstract-sounding grit. The works of Meyer, Rorem, and other modern staples on the NSO bill lend themselves to the broad sweep and the large gesture. Their sounds are the type to serve as backdrops to movie epics.

One of next season’s projects that most excites Slatkin is the festival “Soundtracks: Music and Film,” which he describes as a “highly involved” survey of significant movie scores. The two-weekend-long festival will include a great deal of music by the busy film composer John Williams, who will be on hand to help Slatkin with the conducting. “Williams has had one of the broadest impacts on composers and conductors today,” says Slatkin. “He will go down as one of the greatest composers.”

Slatkin adds that “Williams’ music possesses genuine craftsmanship.” Slatkin is certain that D.C. patrons will love the concerts, pointing to the wild audience response to an encore of Williams music from Star Wars that the NSO performed during its recent European tour.

Orkis observes that in the “same way that Rostropovich struck up close ties with Russian composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Leonard has struck up strong relationships with a group of contemporary American composers.” Beyond Williams, Slatkin’s musical compatriots include Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwantner, John Corigliano, and, as evidenced by the composer’s offer of a world premiere, Danielpour, all of whom write lyrical, tonal and, above all, accessible works.

Their work is problematic because of the gauche and sometimes turgid mixture of popular sounds with more traditional forms. A lot of this music sounds saccharine, expressing emotions without real depth. There is little foundation for the grand gestures that these composers include with such alacrity. Although the music is largely absent the abstract, systematic techniques that annoy so many people, neither does it land with much impact.

Two seasons ago, Slatkin programmed one of the most disappointing evenings of his tenure. It was filled with this kind of music. The January 2000 concert included premieres of works by the American composers Joan Tower, Danielpour, and Michael Kamen, one of Slatkin’s classmates from Juilliard who won fame by scoring music for such albums as Pink Floyd’s The Wall and such movies as Mr. Holland’s Opus. The works in the concert ranged from the vapid to the dull.

Slatkin’s puzzling dedication to this music surfaced almost a year later, in January 2001, after Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott dismantled the works in a year-end wrap-up article. Slatkin responded ferociously, with an open letter defending the works, specifically touting Kamen’s credentials as a serious composer and noting that Kamen had “researched his subject well.”

Slatkin stated emphatically that the audience appeared to like the work, noting that the only “Letter to the Editor” printed in the Post that “seemed negative to the work was signed by someone who admitted to not even being in the hall….”

Especially underrepresented on NSO concert programs is the work of contemporary composers who are part of the avant-garde. These composers try to create entirely new notions about music, structuring compositions, for example, around instrumental colors as opposed to melodic themes. Composers who have created music in this vein include the American Elliott Carter, the great Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, and France’s onetime enfant terrible of classical music, Pierre Boulez.

Slatkin once organized an entire festival celebrating the work of John Adams, a popular American minimalist. But that festival was in London, with Slatkin at the podium of the BBC Symphony. Slatkin has brought a good bit of Adams before D.C. audiences, but nothing on the scale of the London festival, which should make any NSO devotee jealous. Adams’ beguiling Century Rolls piano concerto did show up on the program last year, at least, and one of next season’s highlights will be the U.S. premiere of Adams’ new symphony, Guide to Strange Places.

Programming more avant-gardists would fill a niche for the NSO. After the masterworks, the festivals, and the grand life-proclaiming musical statements, there should still be room for more abstract, inwardly focused, and experimental sounds. And the ensembles necessary to perform such music are typically smaller and more approachable.

Slatkin professes mixed feelings for the music of the avant-garde. He acknowledges the contributions of such composers as Kaija Saariaho, whose symphony Nymphea Reflections will receive a U.S. premiere by the NSO next season. But Slatkin admits a distaste for other champions of the genre, including Wolfgang Rihm, a German composer whose work can sound as astringent and confrontational as the horrifying subjects he addresses.

By playing so little music from the avant-garde, the NSO is at best missing out on an opportunity to further refine its sound. The power of the music that the NSO is programming out of its concerts was on display three seasons ago in New York City. At Carnegie Hall, the Berlin Philharmonic juxtaposed Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 with a work of Italian modernist Luigi Nono. The careful, dedicated way the Berliners floated Nono’s dense harmonies across the hall in the first half led directly to one of the most searing readings of Mahler’s last complete symphony in the second. The orchestra sounded like a giant organ under its longtime former director, Herbert von Karajan. The new director, Claudio Abbado, used the nebulous harmonies of the Nono piece to create a much more flexible sound that got all the squawks out of Mahler’s rich score. This concert took music to a peak that the NSO has only glimpsed.

At worst, by serving such an imbalance of contemporary music, Slatkin may fail to generate any real demand for new music in general. Mackey talks a lot about creating an upward-spiraling feedback loop of excitement for new music. To kick-start the spiral, audiences must hear a broad range of new styles. Over time, they will begin to demand more new works simply for their own sake. An audience “is not going to like everything,” Mackey says, but it will crave new music because “it will be fun for them to say that you don’t like a piece and understand why.”

A Gradual Evolution

The NSO is by no means condemned to eternal second-class citizenship. To judge from Slatkin’s tepid approach to contemporary music, the conductor is taking his time with the orchestra. He wants to please his audience, to avoid upsetting his subscriber base. He wants the NSO’s sound to continue improving, so that it can give solid, convincing concerts. Slatkin is playing it safe.

If the NSO won’t join the very select orchestral pantheon anytime soon, Slatkin’s balance of warhorses and American composers will have the salutary benefit of ensuring the financial viability of the orchestra. By saddling programs with movie scores from the likes of John Williams, he’ll keep people filing into the Concert Hall. Other orchestras face financial troubles, but NSO subscriptions are up for next season and are likely to increase in future years.

Yet Slatkin must stop simply trying to please his audience and start challenging it. The great performer and music scholar Charles Rosen once put forth a proposal for his fellow musicians: “History teaches us that it is the art that is tough and that resists immediate appreciation that has the best chance of enduring and returning. We must do all we can to foster it, to beg composers to pay no heed to the pressures of the music business but to listen to their own inspiration.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.