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It's a capital orchestra

Washington's National Symphony makes its Disney Hall debut with forceful Bernstein and Corigliano works.

October 21, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

The drumbeat from Washington -- powerful, persistent -- confined itself to pressing social concerns. Issues of gang warfare and ruinous racial divisions were boldly raised. Reminders of unpreparedness for a pandemic were conveyed with fury, passion and fanciful mourning.

No, government officials were not involved. CNN was not on hand. But large drums throbbed loudly. Purposeful fingers snapped with orchestrated precision. And the beats and snaps were at least semiofficial. Wednesday night, the National Symphony made its first appearance at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

For the occasion, which marked the start of a California and Nevada tour, conductor Leonard Slatkin made a social responsibility sandwich, beginning with Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and concluding, in high dudgeon, with John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, sometimes known as the "AIDS" Symphony. In the center came the sweet talk, the flattery, in the form of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. As its soloist, Itzhak Perlman added the celebrity factor.

This season, the National Symphony has reached the respectable age of 75. With Slatkin now in his 10th year as music director, it speaks its mind. Thanks to Slatkin -- a native Angeleno and an advocate of his country's music -- its accent is American, and its tone is forthright.

The orchestrated "West Side Story" dances and Corigliano's symphony begin similarly, with a sharp bark to attention. But Bernstein immediately turns suave, cool. The players snap their fingers, which 45 years after he made this version (with the help of some arrangers) still gets a titter from the audience. Corigliano takes a different tack. He doesn't let go but instead builds up his rage in thick, fuming chords that continue for a painfully long time.

Both works are well known. Ripped out of the headlines, Bernstein's 1957 musical brings to the stage Italian and Puerto Rican gangs on the Upper West Side of New York. Compared with modern gang warriors, they seem innocent today, but they were nonetheless deadly. Corigliano's score was written in 1989 for the Chicago Symphony in memory of his friends who had recently died from AIDS.

Both composers rage against forces they feel powerless to control, while reminding us of love, while dreaming of unattainable paradise. On the surface, Bernstein is more sentimental. Corigliano's symphony, with its frightfully aggressive first-movement climaxes, its demented second-movement tarantella and its heaving sighs in a long concluding chaconne, is American Shostakovich.

In the symphony, Corigliano's writing for orchestra is massive and masterfully effective. Nothing is not obvious in its emotional or programmatic intent. Heavy percussion made the Disney floor shake. An offstage piano, playing an Albeniz tango, is the voice of one friend, the tarantella that of a second. The chaconne is titled "Giulio's Song," after a cellist, and includes syrupy cello solos.

The work is, if not particularly important music, a good use of music, and Slatkin is one its most persuasive champions. He recorded it with the National Symphony in 1996, shortly after taking over the orchestra. In introducing it to the audience Wednesday, he noted that it has had more than 800 performances. This, given the preparation for the tour and the immediacy of the Disney acoustic, was probably one of the best. The orchestra cared little about subtlety and everything about break-down-the-rafters drama.

There was grandeur and drama in Bernstein's dances as well. Slatkin again wanted force and got it. The orchestra did not sound slick or smooth, and it clearly needed time to catch on to the Disney sound (it plays in a less graceful, more demanding hall in the Kennedy Center).

Barber's Violin Concerto, with its poignant tunes and its old-fashioned showy ending, came as sonic relief. But it seemed, here, of little consequence. A couple of decades ago, Perlman took an interest in this Romantic American score. He played it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Music Center and in Carnegie Hall. He recorded it with the Boston Symphony in 1994.

Wednesday's performance, like those earlier ones, was pleasant enough. The violin playing seemed effortless. But Perlman has nothing more to say about the music -- which he has not bothered to memorize -- than he did in the past. He did not dig. He made nice little phrases and offered middle-of-the-road sentimentality. When Slatkin worked up a lather, Perlman, a musical politician of the offend-no-one school, appeared unaffected, even bemused.

There were two encores. Copland's "Down a Country Lane" provided nostalgia without sugar. Rob Mathes' arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner," commissioned for the National's 75th anniversary, turned to John Williams for inspiration and returned us to the Washington we know well. It should go over just fine in the orchestra's hometown, at least with politicians.

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