The friendly roar that greeted Leonard Slatkin when he first stepped up onto the podium at the Kennedy Center Thursday night said a lot.
You might never have guessed it from reading some of the snarky press coverage the conductor received in Washington during his dozen years as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, but Slatkin did a lot of good in that post, and I think that audiences genuinely liked and appreciated his work. This was his first return since leaving the post in 2008, and his first conducting appearance anywhere since suffering a heart attack two months ago, so there were clearly good wishes behind that hearty reception. The musicians joined in the welcome.
It was encouraging to see Slatkin looking so hale, and it was gratifying to hear him generate so much powerfully expressive music-making in a program that was catnip to us Anglophiles -- Elgar's Violin Concerto and Holst's "The Planets."
That concerto is, IMHO, the most
profoundly personal work of its kind. Yes, I know, the violin concertos by Beethoven and Brahms, to name a few, are towering, sublime masterpieces. But there's something deeper still, more revealing in Elgar's long (nearly 50 minutes), challenging score.
Even if you didn't know a thing about the back story, which has emerged over the decades since its 1910 premiere, you could sense that this is much, much more than just music in the abstract. That back story, needless to say, concerns romance, in this case extra-marital and not necessarily consummated.
Like a musical precursor to "Brief Encounter," the concerto is intimate, passionate, poignant, playful, bittersweet. It is unconcerned with following conventional concerto procedure; it asks the listener to suspend expectations, especially when it comes to the finale, which is anything but the kind of light-hearted, propulsive release common to so many of the concertos that preceded this one. The long, misty-colored cadenza in that finale defies convention, but its unhurried, reflective look back at preceding themes is uncommonly affecting.
The soloist for the NSO performance was Nikolaj Znaider, one of the most respected players of the younger generation. He just happens to have a recording of the Elgar Concerto hitting the stores and download engines this week. On Thursday, Znaider, playing on the same Guarnerius violin that Fritz Kreisler used for the concerto's premiere, may not have always dug all the way into the inner beauty and poetry of the piece (he had the music on a stand in front of him), but, overall, offered an admirable combination of technical security, penetrating tone and radiant phrasing. He caressed the tenderest themes quite beguilingly and poured on the drama in the outer movements; he brought a rapt and deeply expressive touch to the cadenza.
Slatkin tailored the orchestral side of this fully symphonic concerto masterfully, attentive to subtle shades in the scoring (the delicate shading behind the soloists during that cadenza emerged with particular care) and alert to opportunities for emotional urgency (within proper British bounds of taste, of course). The NSO responded with warm, vivid and, for the most, finely articulated, playing.
"The Planets" was, for me, almost anti-climactic after that. But Slatkin put considerable life into the war horse, giving "Mars" a good kick, for example, not to mention getting extra mileage out of the noble march tune in "Jupiter" and making every effort to produce the eerie atmosphere of "Neptune."
The orchestra sounded a little less cohesive in a couple spots, yet the performance easily reaffirmed the fundamentally sturdy ensemble that Slatkin honed during his tenure. The rapport between the players and their former music director was evident throughout. Occasional pitch-drooping aside, the women of the Choral Arts Society of Washington delivered their off-stage contributions in "Neptune" effectively; their gradual fade-out, complemented by dimming of the lights in the hall, came off very well.
The program repeats at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
PHOTOS: SLATKIN (Donald Dietz/Detroit Symphony Orchestra), ZNAIDER (Baltimore Sun File)