Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tim Page on Leonard Slatkin and the NSO

Sunday's Washington Post had a debate between Tim Page "One" and Tim Page "Two" over the benefits and effects of Leonard Slatkin's 12 years as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Slatkin is stepping down in June and moving on to other opportunities in Detroit and elsewhere. I'm not sure the "two minds" approach works as a story-telling device, but it's a unique way to explore the good and bad aspects of Slatkin's tenure in Washington. I was a fan of Slatkin before he came to DC, and a smooth sales rep from the Kennedy Center talked me into buying season tickets to the NSO based largely on the orchestra's hiring of him in 1994 (he conducted a few concerts a year in the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons before taking over full-time in 1996). I was a student at Georgetown at the time and I had avoided the NSO up to that point, as its reputation was not that good. Also, I couldn't really afford season tickets, but when the guy told me that getting in early was the best way for me to get to hear Slatkin conduct, I broke out my then-pristine credit card and paid up.

And it was worth it. I was a season ticket holder for four seasons, and the orchestra's playing improved each year. I especially enjoyed Slatkin's renditions of Mahler's symphonies; one of the highlights of my time in DC is hearing the NSO perform Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in January 1995. Slatkin had a particular fondness for the Labeque sisters piano duo, but I think it was justified: two years in a row I made sure to get tickets to their performances with the orchestra. Slatkin also emphasized American composers, and often included new works or seldom-performed works on his concert programs. I moved to New York in the fall of 1999 and so I have missed the remainder of Slatkin's time with the NSO, but I was aware that the excitement about Slatkin had abated. I still think Slatkin is an extraordinary musician and conductor and I'm sure he will continue to make his presence felt on the American musical scene. He'll leave behind an orchestra that is in much better musical shape than when he arrived, and I hope that the NSO continues to grow. I think Slatkin's legacy will be that he gave the NSO the push it needed to become an orchestra on par with other great American orchestras.

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