Leonard Slatkin tramples on Bard Sosnoff – the Millbrook Independent

Conductor Leonard Slatkin. Photo courtesy of Bard College.

by Kevin T McEneaney

One of the interesting features of Bard College’s The Orchestra Now program is guest conductors. Leonard Slatkin, one of the most distinguished conductors of the past fifty years, has appeared, wand in hand, to conduct a program of his choosing: Slatkin conducts Brahmsiana.

The concert opened with Circuits (1990) by Cindy McTee, a modernist and well-established wind work that offers an opening delight due to its energetic, charming and propulsive qualities, surging 1/16e notes at 152 beats per minute. The use of syncope with a bold jazz inflection makes this work a delight. Cindy is Slatkin’s wife; she remains a vital contemporary composer with an impressive body of work. We would like to know more about his work.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin with The Orchestra Now

Slatkin is also a modern composer: Brahmsiane offers an American first. His latest book, Classic crossroads: the way forward for the music of the 21stst Century (we share the same editor) presents a case for an eclectic synthesis. Due to his extraordinary ear and attention to detail, Slatkin has revived many orchestras across this country, while leaving a legacy of many extraordinary recordings.

Brahmsiane (2007) delivered a new orchestral arrangement of Brahms ‘seven favorite Slatkin movements, originally inspired by Brahms’ Third Piano Quartet Andante. In the program, Slatkin noted that the English horn and bass clarinet had not yet been invented during Brahms’ lifetime. The main musical theme of the evening became re-orchestration. Performed as a single sequel for the first time, I thought each new arrangement could have been a better space and longevity as individuals rather than as a team in a small group. My favorite was the penultimate Rhapsody

Modest Mussorgsky Pictures of an exhibition (composed in 1874 for piano; revised and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, but premiered at the Paris Opera in 1922 with an orchestral arrangement by Ravel, conducted by Sege Koussevitzky, who had commissioned Ravel) became (with Boris Godunov) a posthumous international favorite among program pieces. Lately, there has been a scientific debate concerning the contribution of Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel.

Mussorgsky, more of a primitive and authentic voice than an accomplished composer, was shaken by the untimely death of one of his closest friends, Victor Hartmann, an architectural designer and watercolor painter. Hartmann had recently returned from a long tour of Europe with a trunk of recent sketches and drawings. Seven months after Hartmann’s death, a St. Petersburg commemorative exhibition was held in February 1874, featuring 400 paintings (only a few paintings have survived).

Pictures was a requiem, offering a meditation on death: ten slides plus ambulatory interludes present a Manichean psychology of swirling ups and downs. Mourning alternates with comedic relief, ending upside down with an optimistic view of what Hartmann could have achieved in his lifetime. (I was slightly disappointed that the great masterpiece of cinema Russian arch in 2002 did not use any music by Mussorgsky.) The final movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev” remains an enthralling masterpiece of woodwinds, cellos, horns (and resonating trombone by David Kidd) and furious strings. Kiev never built this proposed gate, but the imaginary musical gate looks as real as anything in this too solid world.

VictorWatercolor by Hartmann of the Great Gate of Kiev project

Conductor Slatkin’s version tightened up the drama with a few sharp edits that invested the music with a more ferocious syncope, which gave the soloists greater prominence. This was a more festive version of Mussorgsky, as the dismal lamentations were reduced. It was clear that orchestral players really enjoyed their pounding and slashing unity, so that the whole became much larger than its individual parts.

The audience responded with two standing ovations. As a reminder, Slatkin offered a funny but welcome and exciting frivolity: his violinist father had composed Carmen hoedown, saying that Bizet (instead of killing himself as a failure) could have moved to Los Angles and become a hit with comedic western dance. It was a real hoot, and he took off that stovetop pressure steam cover in masterful awe that Pictures implants itself in the brain like a mystical sting.

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