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Everyone seemed to enjoy the Kennedy Center’s Salute to Leonard Slatkin except Leonard Slatkin.Rather than savor the one night everyone was sure to be nice to him, the outgoing National Symphony Orchestra music director looked like he was in a rush to get it over with.Slatkin hurriedly shuffled between the conductor’s stand and offstage, at one point cutting off the audience at the start of a standing ovation.He never said a word until the end of the program, and even his brief remarks were less than upbeat, acknowledging the cloud under which he was leaving after his contentious 12-year tenure.He referred to both his supporters and those who wrote him “sometimes not so wonderful letters,” and “some…who questioned what I was thinking at the time.”
“What was he thinking?” was apparently also the subject of the video tribute to him after intermission, featuring a photo montage of Slatkin wearing silly hats and some of his more famously gimmicky performances (cramming 10 grand pianos on stage for “Piano 2000”) that wowed audiences and made some critics cringe.
Slatkin’s true legacy with the NSO is that of a fall guy.He was given two impossible tasks and then shown the door when he couldn’t fulfill them.The first was to transform the NSO, a great orchestra whose reputation nonetheless ranks somewhere below Cleveland’s, into a first-tier orchestra.The second was to expand the audience for a dying art form, a style of music with all the sex appeal of Edmund Burke.Slatkin made an admirable effort for both.He made a niche for the NSO, emphasizing the “national” with a repertoire that put 20th-Century American composers front and center.And then there were the gimmicks.For every “Soundtracks: Music and Film with John Williams” there were happy Star Wars geeks clutching their action figures tightly and grumpy Statlers and Waldorfs grumbling that Slatkin wasn’t serious enough about keeping classical music boring.
Sunday’s performance was Slatkin in rare form, highlighting many of his signature composers.A bustling Festive Overture by Slatkin favorite Shostakovich punctuated by cymbals and horns began the program, followed by Elgar’s Serenade in E Minor, a heavier piece for which Slatkin had to slow the orchestra’s momentum.British composers are another calling card of Slatkin’s, but this choice perhaps aimed to address Slatkin’s reputation as a conductor who handles complexity and bombast better than subtlety and emotion.
Celebrity guest Yo-Yo Ma arrived for Bloch’s Schelomo, Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra.Ma was as impressive and overly demonstrative as could be expected, doing the lean-way-back-in-your-chair thing and the pained-expression-on-your-face thing that effectively conveys when the music is so beautiful that it makes you constipated.This reviewer was once lucky enough to see a surprise performance by Yo-Yo Ma at a Christmas Eve service at a church in Boston, for which Ma managed to sit still the entire time and play the cello like a normal person.Even if it’s an act though, Ma is a masterful actor and unparalleled cellist.“It was moving,” said Pasky Pascual of Silver Spring.“Yo-Yo Ma always brings 110%.”
Following a signature Overture to Candide by Bernstein, Ma returned for a composition by Slatkin himself, a Dialogue for Two Cellos and Orchestra, a duet with recent NSO soloist Sol Gabetta.A pleasant if slightly disjointed piece, it veered from creepy to majestic to silly, like a Wayans brothers movie that managed to spoof The Sixth Sense, Ben-Hur and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.Respighi’s Pines of Rome finished the program with some light gimmicks: canned bird calls and trombones on the third tier balcony.Appropriately, the encore brought it back to the heartland with American composer Leroy Anderson.
How will D.C. remember Slatkin?Audience members were positive.“He left the orchestra in better shape than when he came” said Jayne Speck.“It’s a shame it’s over.”For Gavin Tameris, Slatkin was best at reaching out beyond the concert hall, with his music education efforts.If his predecessor Mstislav Rostropovich emphasized the music, Slatkin emphasized the community.
Maybe he should have focused more on the music, at least in the early 2000s when Slatkin admits his game face was off, and marital woes during a stint with the BBC Orchestra provided grist for the London tabloids. None of that was apparent on Sunday night though. The performance reminded audiences why the Kennedy Center brought Slatkin here in the first place. He may be in too much of a hurry to get to Detroit to look back, but he can be proud of what he had to say in DC, a town that listened politely but didn’t always get it.