When Slatkin Was Going To Lift Washington Above The Clouds
When Leonard Slatkin hustled onto the stage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for one of his final appearances as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, the audience reacted with measured enthusiasm. Even after a dazzling performance by a young cello soloist making her Washington debut, the sort of player Slatkin regularly brought to this city, even after the orchestra's chairman of the board, Ann Jordan, presented the departing music director with a portrait signed by all of the musicians, the audience could not manage a standing ovation.
What a contrast from Slatkin's arrival in Washington in 1994. When Slatkin was appointed to take over the orchestra, the view both inside the Kennedy Center and around the region was that this was a superstar who would lift the NSO to a whole new level, launching Washington to a cultural stature in keeping with its traditional political prowess and its then-emerging economic heft.
"I cannot take my eyes off Leonard Slatkin. The music comes from within him," French horn player Sylvia Alimena told me back then. "The audience will immediately hear a tighter orchestra, one that's playing with confidence. A musician can tell when something's been choreographed and when it's coming from their soul."
"Slatkin is a natural," violinist Luis Haza said as the conductor began his tenure. "He speaks authoritatively, but you feel it's not an order. This man sees everything. He reads people's minds."
Conducting is a mystical, sensual pursuit, I wrote back in '94, trying to figure out why the hiring of a music director was such a big deal. A conductor is like a football coach, clergyman or newspaper editor. He inspires, or he is a technician, or he is a charlatan. Most are charlatans.
Six years later, when the Washington Wizards brought a fading Michael Jordan to town to run the team, the hope and prayer was that his magic would somehow rub off on all of us, making Washington somehow more glamorous than our drab reputation had ever permitted us to imagine ourselves. James Kimsey, the AOL co-founder, told me then that Jordan would join Slatkin and Placido Domingo at the Washington Opera as public faces of the city's cultural renaissance.
"Big people make an impact, they add a lot of pizzazz," he said. "You will see a lot of change in a short time. There's a metamorphosis in the power structure of the city as the older regime kind of fades away."
But to be honest, not one of those great artists made much difference beyond their own stage, and in the cases of Jordan and Slatkin, it's not even clear that they played much of a transformational role in their field of play. The arrival of an accomplished outsider, trumpeted by high hopes and expansive talk, seems in the end to do little to change either the intractable urban ills of a place like Washington or even the spirit of the city.
And still we dream of the silver bullet. In Slatkin's case, there were indeed moments when he took a second-tier orchestra and made it something to talk about. When he decided to live in Potomac and settle his family here rather than in any of the other world capitals where he was conducting, when he showed up to conduct the $5 family concerts, when he brought local celebrities onto the stage to help create Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," Slatkin seemed eager to reach beyond the symphony's subscriber base to help classical music regain a place in the hearts of all.
it was not to be. As Slatkin told The Post's Anne Midgette, he was stretched too thin, was distracted by personal problems, and never paid the attention necessary to push the NSO to a more prominent place in the lives of Washingtonians. Indeed, in the later years of his tenure, Slatkin's thunder was stolen by the Baltimore Symphony, with its new hall in Bethesda and its new conductor, Marin Alsop, who came in with very similar fanfare and seemed to connect in a deeper way.
Fourteen years ago, at his first concert here, Slatkin wowed a crowd packed with Cabinet members, Senators, media heavyweights and the region's new tech elite. The musicians loved him too. He chose as the heart of that first program Aaron Copland's Third Symphony, a soaring piece of Americana that brought out Slatkin's every emotion and reached to his core: the American identity he hoped to attach to the NSO. I wrote that night that Slatkin swayed and jumped, and an orchestra hungry for variety after former conductor Mstislav Rostropovich's Russian ferocity leaned forward to follow Slatkin's every gesture.
In an ebullient, sharing mood, Slatkin that night and on many more to follow told stories about the music, breaking down the barrier between audience and musician. He took questions from the audience, told jokes, talked about how Copland named his "Fanfare for the Common Man"--its debut was set for April 15, 1943, Tax Day, so the common man seemed the perfect subject of a tribute.
On Friday, Slatkin went out with the very same Copland piece, and the orchestra nailed it, delivering the fantastically optimistic and expansive finale with a tinge of regret and a morsel of love tucked into the obligatory bombast. Slatkin seemed to be popping out of his skin to coax those last emotions from the players, many of whom he had hired.
The audience loved it, and finally they showed Slatkin their appreciation, calling him out again and again.
At that first concert in 1994, Slatkin told the audience that "We must not be wallpaper anymore. Our job is to take you to other worlds."
At this last concert, the music director did not say a word to the audience. As he has said of himself, he did not achieve in Washington what he had set out to do. After the applause ended, the orchestra lingered for a moment, and the audience too, waiting for what comes next.
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