Playing with Fire: National Festival Orchestra at the University of Maryland, June 16, 2012

From the opening bars of Leopold Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ, it was clear: Leonard Slatkin had the National Orchestral Institute‘s National Festival Orchestra playing extremely well. As noted previously on this blog appliance, the NOI brings talented young musicians to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for a month of high-level instrumental tutelage, leading to four Saturdays of orchestral concerts and some other fun sprinkled throughout the month of June. In years past, the students came together to form the NOI Philharmonic, which is now called the National Festival Orchestra for some reason.

In years past, imperfect string ensemble has been a reliable telltale that they do not play together all the time. Under Slatkin’s baton, though, the lower strings united impressively to state the passacaglia theme, and more impressively they maintained their concentration as they played it over and over and over again until Stokowski’s transcription finally handed it to the brass. Especially in this transcription, the passacaglia and fugue burns slow, and Slatkin kept it on a long trajectory, the violin figurations steadily becoming busier and then approaching a frenzy, until the final moments of the fugue, when the French horns came in blasting the subject like a howitzer.

Leonard Slatkin conducting some other kids, at Interlochen. From his website.

Only the winds failed to impress in the Bach/Stokowski, sounding a bit lost in the counterpoint, but they sounded great in Cindy McTee‘s “Double Play,” next on the program and (exciting!) a DMV premiere. As was his custom when leading new works as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra a few Metro stops south, Slatkin said a few words before the piece but disclosed little that wasn’t already in the program notes. My considered opinion is that if you think a preconcert talk is necessary, you should prepare some excerpts so the audience has some idea what you’re talking about when you discuss the music. To do otherwise accomplishes little.

This lack of new info frustrated especially given that Slatkin and McTee are married, though he did note that “royalties stay in the family.” The performance put his wife’s work in a good light. (Slatkin also led the work’s world premiere with his new band, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in 2010.) McTee packed the piece full of gorgeous textures, like in the opening section, “The Unquestioned Answer,” where percussion dappled the sweet, quiet chords in the strings and winds like stars reflected in the lapping tides, pulsing with quiet energy. The “Tempus Fugit” second section, tinged with jazzy harmonies; skittered and wheeled about with great nervous energy that often expressed itself in dueling rhythms. Even though McTee says the two sections can be performed separately, my favorite thing in the whole piece was the transition, with the percussion striking a rhythm against indifferent strings, like a match trying to ignite. Slatkin kept it all humming along. Though McTee did not approach the cosmic wonder of Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” whose title and musical materials the first section messed around with, the work was still a ton of fun.

I am sure it was just a coincidence that Slatkin led Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony with the NFO of the NOI a week after his old band played it under their new music director, Christoph Eschenbach. (No, really, I am. Why is my lack of sarcasm not coming across in type?) Anyway, the NFO sounded least professional in this warhorse of a symphony, in both bad and good ways. The orchestra got out of sync in some busy passages, climaxes occasionally sounded more loud than clear, and some of the soloists had trouble keeping their lines going, most notably the horn’s heartbreaking hiccup in the gorgeous melody that begins this symphony’s slow movement.

But a shocking enthusiasm also animated this performance; nothing about it sounded jaded. Those cacophonous climaxes erupted from the music, pinning me back in my seat, especially when contrasting with the more tender music in the slow movement. Desperation and triumph alternated and shot through the finale, the NFO keenly feeling the impact of each different riff on the speedy journey. And there was some fine orchestral playing, particularly when Slatkin and his charges successfully executed some tricky tempo changes, as in a stop-you-dead brusque acceleration during the first movement’s coda.

That moment felt like a rebuke to any hope that had been offered by previous modulations to the major mode, and at that point in the performance I wasn’t thinking about how well Slatkin or the orchestra were doing; I just felt a keen disappointment, straight from the drama of the music. That kind of immediacy, born of freshness and passion, distinguishes NOI performances year after year. It was great to hear it again on Saturday night.

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey.


“Honey, did you really have to start the diminuendo so early last night?”
“That’s how it is in the score.”
“But you know the score is only a guide for the realization of a performance. In the moment, I didn’t want the diminuendo to begin then.”
“You should probably revise the score. I’ll make a note.”
“But maybe tomorrow the diminuendo will need to begin then. The hall might feel more intimate. You have to feel it and see when it’s going to begin.”
“I have a limited amount of control over these musicians anyway. If they want to play softer they’re going to play softer. If I want them to play some way outside the score, I need to tell them to do that before we perform.”
“Could you go take the trash out?”

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