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Music Academy Wraps Up Festival with a Master Stroke: Leonard Slatkin

Director' transcendent gifts promise to bring life to young orchestra's performance

True to a venerable tradition, the last event of the Music Academy of the West’s 2009 Summer Festival is a concert by the Festival Orchestra. At 8 p.m. Saturday, the young orchestra will take The Granada stage under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, to perform a program of three works: Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem, Opus 20” (1940); Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” (1942), narrated by Deandre Simmons; and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4 in f minor, Opus 36” (1877).

Maestro Leonard Slatkin leads the 2009 Festival Orchestra in the Music Academy of the West's closing concert Saturday.
Maestro Leonard Slatkin leads the 2009 Festival Orchestra in the Music Academy of the West’s closing concert Saturday.

To call Slatkin “America’s music director,” as the big Los Angeles daily has done, conjures up, for me, an image of him in a maroon dinner jacket, with padded shoulders and black trim, holding a gleaming baton in the air, grinning like Mitch Miller, and poised to launch into “Stars and Stripes Forever” or some other Sousa horror. The epithet makes too much of him, in a PR-sort of way, and too little. It reminds me of Marshall McLuhan’s warning that “To reward and make celebrities of artists can, also, be a way of ignoring their prophetic work, and preventing its timely use for survival.”

Although he has conducted, with brilliance and astonishing confidence, virtually every great and near-great orchestra in the world, Slatkin has never served as music director of any of the traditional “Big Five” of American orchestras — Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia.

While he may have attracted the bulk of his following in the popular press during his tenure as music director (1996-2008) of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., most music lovers first became aware of his great gifts when he was music director of the St. Louis Symphony (1979-1996). As one article online points out, “The national profile of the orchestra increased notably under his tenure.”

He is the master of all orchestral music but has, I think, a particular affinity for American and British composers of the 20th century. I don’t think I would be wrong to suggest that his taste runs more to George Antheil and Walter Piston than to Roger Sessions or Elliott Carter, to Ralph Vaughan Williams rather than Michael Tippett; so does the taste of most American audiences, which may account for his popularity with them. He has, in any case, a transcendent gift for bringing to life the huge scores of post-Romantic composers.

American music lovers remain, alas, mostly in thrall to Europe. Few major American orchestras have seen fit to place themselves in the hands of a native maestro. For all the triumphant success of Leonard Bernstein, few American boys and girls have grown up to be music directors. In the front rank, only Slatkin and Michael Tilson Thomas come to mind. It is not that we lack the talent — a visit to any Music Academy event will put that to rest — but only the-self confidence to choose the best candidate, whether they have an accent or not.

Slatkin has chosen a program, it seems to me, that combines works that the young musicians will have to know how to play with those that they should know how to play.

Although I find most of Britten’s music boring, when it is not actively irritating, I make complete exceptions of two works: the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1957) and the “Sinfonia da Requiem” from 1940. The latter is an early work, written when the composer was 26, on a commission from the emperor of Japan in celebration of 2,600 years of his family’s rule. Britten, a pacifist named his three movements after sections of the Catholic Requiem Mass, and the emperor, offended, rejected the completed work. The commission became null and void, in any case, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and invaded the British colonies in Southeast Asia. The “Sinfonia” is a powerful and moving work, on quite a deeper emotional level than Britten managed to achieve again.

Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” was commissioned by Andre Kostelanetz in 1942, as part of what might be called the war effort. The commission was for the musical portrait of some eminent American, and Copland’s first thoughts were to celebrate poet Walt Whitman. Word came down on high that a political figure would be more appropriate, and “From this moment,” said Copland, “Lincoln seemed inevitable.” Admiration for Abraham Lincoln crosses all national and political boundaries. Those nonmusicians who have been honored to participate as “Narrator” include Walter Cronkite, Henry Fonda, Al Gore, Tom Hanks, Katharine Hepburn, Charlton Heston, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones, Walter Mondale, Paul Newman, Vincent Price, Carl Sandburg, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, James Taylor, Margaret Thatcher and Gore Vidal. The music is the usual Copland mix of stirring folk tunes in sophisticated orchestrations, his own patented brand of Americana.

Tchaikovsky’s “Fourth Symphony” has been getting a great deal of play in recent years — has, indeed, all but knocked the “Fifth” and “Sixth” right into next season, temporarily — and while it is an impressive work, in spots, it does not represent the height of Tchaikovsky’s melodic inspiration. That makes it, I suppose, the perfect vehicle for Maestro Slatkin’s magic. We will come away, I am sure, feeling that the work is much greater than it is.

Tickets to this concert are $45, $30 and $10. Click here to purchase tickets online or call 805.969.8787 or The Granada ticket office at 805.966.2324.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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