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Slatkin exits Bowl with a fitting, triumphant program

September 15, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Leonard Slatkin is America's music director. On Sunday he will begin his final season as music director of the National Symphony in Washington. He is conductor laureate of the St. Louis Symphony and music advisor to the Nashville Symphony. In 2008, he will become principal guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony. He will probably be named the next music director of the Detroit Symphony any day now, given the public love affair between conductor and orchestra. He is also principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic in London, but everyone needs to get away now and then.

Meanwhile, on Thursday night, Slatkin completed his three-year appointment as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's first principal guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl. The program was mainly about America, and comings and goings.

The two main works were Dvorák's Cello Concerto and Copland's Third Symphony. In the wistful concerto, a homesick Czech composer living in New York dreams of Bohemia and lost love. In the symphony, which was premiered in Boston in 1946, an all-American composer captures the country's postwar mood and celebrates the return of troops from Europe and Asia.

But first came Smetana's "The Moldau," the popular movement from his symphonic portrait of Bohemia, "Ma Vlast." As nationalistic music, it set the tone for Dvorák's musings. As a classical music hit, it helped settle Bowl picnickers. And it cleverly acknowledged that Thursday was the first day of the Jewish New Year. For reasons obscure, Smetena used the Hatikva, a Hebrew folk melody, as a kind of musical equivalent of boating along the river Moldau. (Monteverdi also apparently knew the melody.)

Dvorák's concerto, which came next, was warmly played by Lynn Harrell, the American cellist. Some commentators credit Dvorák with writing American music. I'm not one, despite his influence on the development of an American style. But this was an American performance.

Harrell and Slatkin were unsentimental. The framework was roundly symphonic, and the amplification did not unnaturally boost the cello, which meant that its lower range sometimes got lost in the orchestral crush.

Harrell has probably played the piece too many times (what important cellist hasn't?), but the cello sang with quiet persuasiveness on the higher strings. And Harrell performed a swelling solo at the end, a crescendo from stunned silence to sweet rhapsody, that was magnificent.

The Copland Third is a fine way for a conductor to take his leave. It is Copland's grandest statement, his stab at writing the great American symphony. An oracular work, it builds its most grandiose statements out of Copland's famed "Fanfare for the Common Man," written in 1942 as musical encouragement for a wartime America. In the symphony, the fanfare triumphs.

The Third followed "Appalachian Spring" by two years, so the performance Thursday felt as if it were picking up where Slatkin's 9/11 program Tuesday, which began with the ballet, left off. With its quiet opening, its "Billy the Kid" scherzo, its cleverly flowing, ever-so-slightly mystical slow movement (perhaps the score's high point) and its over-the-top fanfare-ish finale, the symphony represents a lovable, can-do, unfussy America of which we can easily be proud. Copland began the score in Mexico, and as in Dvorák's concerto, the music carries that moving quality of a composer seeing his home more clearly by being away from it.

Slatkin takes the Third Symphony for what it is. Most conductors who try to match Bernstein's incomparable Mahlerian world view in this work fail. Slatkin's performance was compelling for not going too far.

He got a grainy sound from the orchestra. A sound like that threatens to fall apart. The listener takes nothing for granted, and sentiments in the music do not sound pat. The Third may be a celebration, but war is war, Copland and Slatkin seemed to be saying, and it has terrible consequences. This is 40 minutes of music of a country picking itself up again, but Copland acknowledges that with many wounded and dead, not everyone is whole.

Even so, when the brass blare and the bass drum booms at the end, a pick-me-up this symphony surely is. Slatkin, who has also programmed it as one of his last National Symphony concerts next spring, left the Hollywood Bowl in triumph.


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