Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001

Leonard Slatkin represents one the most divided approaches to new music of any conductor in recent history. Music director of the National Symphony Orchestra since 1996, and chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 2000, Slatkin is a fervent populist and a proven orchestra builder. In 25 years at the St. Louis Symphony he transformed a demoralized and quarrelsome second-rate ensemble into one of the country’s leading orchestras. Yet while he is best known for his rousing performances of Copland, Barber and Hanson, Slatkin has repeatedly demonstrated a lapse of taste when it comes to music of today.

Of Slatkin’s positive achievements are numerous recordings of American music for BMG/RCA Victor, including CDs of Joseph Schwantner (with percussion soloist Evelyn Glennie), Copland‘s film scores, Corigliano‘s Symphony No. 1, and Bolcom‘s Symphony No. 4 (for New World Records). It is also to Slatkin that we owe first performances of Jacob Druckman‘s Mirage (1976), Steve Reich‘s Three Movements (1986) and works by John Adams and Dominick Argento. Indeed, few conductors since Leonard Bernstein have demonstrated such idiomatic flair in standard American repertoire.

Conversely, Slatkin has been heavily criticized for his growing tastes for big, ostentatious works that take on uplifting messages and bombastic rhetoric. The most recent transgression was the NSO’s millennial commission, The New Moon in the Old Moon’s Arms, by film composer Michael Kamen. The piece especially raised the ire of Washington Post music critic Philip Kennicott, who opined, ìKamen’s piece was a disaster — devoid of ideas, inoffensive to a fault, with emotional expression rising no higher than the saccharine.”

Kennicott’s scathing review prompted a strongly worded – and unprecedented – response from the NSO, posted on its Web site. The orchestra states in response, ìIt does seem strange that of all the musical events that took place in the year 2000, Mr. Kennicott chose to focus on this one piece to set a trivial and antagonistic example. The readership of the Washington Post deserves far better than this level of journalism.” The letter was signed by Slatkin, board chairman Michael Brewer, and president Robert C. Jones.

Other works which have raised critical eyebrows in recent seasons include Voices of Remembrance, a Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra by Richard Danielpour (2000) and Michael Daugherty‘s UFO, an NSO commission and percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie (2000). Of the former, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini called it an ìembarrassingly lofty work,” adding that ìone suspects the [NSO] musicians had to flick off the sentimentality detectors in their brains to get through it.”

Remarkably, since arriving at the BBC Symphony in October 2000, Slatkin has managed to uphold the orchestra’s more progressive ethos with respect to new music. Much to the surprise of London’s critical establishment, Slatkin has cultivated relationships with such British composers as James MacMillan, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Nicholas Maw. For his inaugural concerto (with also marked the ensemble’s 70th anniversary) he offered two new pieces, Simon Bainbridge‘s Scherzi, commissioned specially for the occasion, and Turnage’s 1993 score, Set To.

Since then, he has presented a weekend festival of Alfred Schnittke‘s works, and a Copland Festival that contained not one performance of Fanfare for the Common Man or Appalachian Spring but rather featured such rare gems as the Orchestral Variations, the Oscar-winning score for William Wyler‘s 1949 film, The Heiress, Prairie Journal, Music for Movies, and Music For the Theatre.

It will be interesting to see if Leonard Slatkin’s sophisticated British adventures will trickle down to the Beltway, or if NSO audiences can expect more suspect populism.

From Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001
by Brian Wise
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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