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Sunday, March 12, 2000

NHK Symphony Orchestra performs American classics


The world of music is global indeed. Great musicians have originated from a bewildering array of places, studied far from home and made their careers around the world. The United States of America can claim its share of eminent instrumentalists and singers, giving birth to some, training others and nurturing the careers of still others.

The same can hardly be said, though, for conductors and composers.

You may know the names of the conductors who head the major American symphony orchestras -- Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York. How many are American born or trained? None? Let's add Detroit, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Montreal, Canada. How many? Well . . . Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, Minneapolis and Saint Louis?

After Gershwin and Bernstein, without using any references, how many names of American composers can you jot down on a piece of paper? Ten? No? Five? Still no? Three?

What American composer has composed nine symphonies?

You can e-mail me how you made out with this little survey. I'd be curious to know.

Nihon Hoso Kyokai Kokyo Gakudan

Feb. 10, Leonard Slatkin conducting in NHK Hall -- Variations on "America" (Charles Edward Ives, 1874-1954; arr. William Howard Schuman, 1910-92), Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 (Samuel Barber, 1910-81) featuring Pamela Frank; Symphony No. 3 (Aaron Copland, 1900-90)

Feb. 17, Leonard Slatkin conducting in Suntory Hall -- Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (Ralph Vaughan-Williams, 1872-1958), Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 38 (Samuel Barber, 1910-81) featuring John Browning; Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 (Johannes Brahms, 1833-97)

The NHK Symphony Orchestra presented its February round of concerts under Leonard Slatkin, with a decidedly American theme: Each concert included a concerto by Samuel Barber, America's most lyrical composer.

Music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. since 1996, Slatkin, 56, is in the vanguard of eminent American conductors active in America. Born in Los Angeles, trained at Indiana University and the Eastman School of Music, conductor of two major American orchestras in a career spanning more than three decades, he has conscientiously served as a dynamic standard bearer for American music and American musicians.

Including a token American composition in a program which will attract an audience is not difficult. The challenge is to find substantial American works to form the main portion of a good, well-balanced concert program. In general, "something old, something new; something borrowed and something blue" is not a bad rationale to follow. Still, program choices must be made without compromise to the fundamental principle of artistic excellence.

Slatkin's all-American program opened with Variations on "America" by the iconoclastic Charles Ives. Ives was a New Englander who produced four problematic symphonies and other works which thumb their nose at the musical establishment. He had a competent sense of instrumentation, harmony and counterpoint, and he created melodic materials of more than passing interest. Untouched by the spark of true creative genius, he resorted to pranks in his compositions invariably involving the collision of musical materials.

If he had been a typical composer, his works would have contributed but a minor footnote to the history of music, like Benjamin Franklin's string quartet. Ives was a shrewd, stubborn Yankee businessman, though, and he became wealthy enough that he could publish his own works and write what he damned pleased.

Would that there were a significant body of American music so that so much time, energy and talent would not have to be dedicated to pieces like this. William Schuman's arrangement of Ives' music was entirely professional, and Slatkin's interpretation was astoundingly sympathetic. Ives' sardonic bowdlerizing of the cherished tune simply didn't produce a work which attracted either my interest or my feelings, though, and the looney-tunes treatment of the simple subject matter was mildly offensive.

Samuel Barber's violin concerto has been performed here twice already this season by outstanding interpreters. Both performances had impressed me with the substance of the composition, the virtuosity of the soloist and the excellence of the accompaniment. Pamela Frank's perfect poetry and extraordinary empathy lifted the entire experience to a transcendental new dimension. She didn't simply play the music, she lived it. I am not sure I have ever encountered such a beautifully intimate, humanized conception of a piece of music. It was spellbinding.

The same composer's piano concerto frankly didn't fare as well. John Browning is the logical interpreter; he gave the work its 1962 premier in New York. A later work (by 22 years) than the violin concerto, its style is percussive and its formal structure relatively loose. It is also relentlessly demanding of the pianist. Naturally it is harder to make music of it.

Aaron Copland's third symphony proved to be a well-knit composition. The solemn brass and percussion fanfare which constitutes the third movement has achieved a life of its own. Soon after it was composed, I myself played in the third symphony under Copland's direction, but curiously I cannot recall any impression of the music from that time. The performance under Slatkin was far more vibrant, communicative and absorbing, for he was able to do marvelous things to bring out the details and develop the character of the score.

Composing and conducting are of course quite different skills. Still, I was astonished to hear how much more interesting a piece of music Slatkin made of the work than the composer himself had done.

It was also interesting that the C-minor symphony of Brahms communicated less of the conductor's devotion and depth. Clean, honest, straightforward and strong, this seemed to be a rather brash and masculine Brahms, qualities which better favored the American works.

Slatkin has recently taken on a commitment to serve as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London, concurrently with his duties in Washington. His interests have expanded accordingly to include the richer repertory of English music.

Ralph Vaughan-Williams' Fantasia, like Ives' Variations, is a treatment of a pre-existing piece of music, but arranged with dignity, flair, imagination and taste, which were doubly welcome. Scored for strings, the work makes effective contrasts of the full string section with a smaller string ensemble and a quartet of soloists. Slatkin reveled in the music, ethereal and passionate by turns, and drew a brilliant performance from the NHK strings.

Slatkin's commitment to the music and musicians of America is genuine and fervent, and this is what created the most lasting impression from his visit. It is a tragedy there are not more truly great American compositions for all that talent, energy and dedication to be devoted to.

E-mail Robert Ryker at ryker@gol.com

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