Friday, March 20, 2009

Slatkin in Seattle

Last night's Seattle Symphony concert, Leonard Slatkin and Symphonie Fantastique, offered a glimpse at how the orchestra and audience responds to an esteemed visiting maestro. I would imagine that every guest conductor might be a potential candidate during the search for music director, although Seattle Symphony's process remains hush, hush. Slatkin, who served for 27 years as music director for St. Louis Symphony, went on to become music director of National Orchestra in D.C., and is now in the midst of his first season with Detroit Symphony. He is widely respected as an orchestra builder and tireless champion of contemporary American music. Slatkin was born into a distinguished musical family: his father was conductor/violinist Felix Slatkin and his mother Eleanor (Aller) Slatkin was a fabulous cellist. Both his parents were members of the famed Hollywood String Quartet. Leonard Slatkin's brother is cellist Fred Zlotkin, who adopted the original family surname for professional reasons. Both are first cousins to violinist Judith Aller, daughter of distinguished pianist Victor Aller. A personal note: Ms. Aller was my husband's first wife.

I expected opening night to be packed at Benaroya due to Slatkin's renown and the ever popular "Symphonie Fantastique". That was hardly the case. The number of empty parking spaces in Benaroya's garage is a dead giveaway of attendance. Like the previous week, Founders Circle and upper tiers, in particular the nowadays-pricey top level, looked sparse.

"They don't let us sit up there anymore," said one audience member within earshot. "Costs twice as much as here. Anyway, these seats were 20% off the already 20% off ticketed price—" The third tier remained, for a long time, the best kept secret: acoustically, the higher up, the better. The main floor at Benaroya is a chronic dilemma because the brass and percussion can blast the strings into near oblivion.

The program began with Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes. The orchestra sounded apprehensive, perhaps due to opening night nerves, or the inevitable result of having to adjust to out-of-town principal players. I was surprised to find the principal cellist chair, formerly the position of the youthful and exuberant Joshua Roman, now occupied by an older gentleman who elicits an air of clinical routine.

Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, which followed, is a difficult composition to pull off. Chock full of rapid double stops, complex contrapuntal rhythms, and stylistic parodies of the Baroque period combined with jazz elements, the concerto might come across as a dull exercise in the hands of an unimaginative player. However, violinist Julian Rachlin had me at the edge of my seat. From the very first chord described as "the password to the concerto" (the same chord begins each movement) to the very last note, Rachlin tossed off devilishly demanding passages as if they were child's play. He's a compelling, masterful artist with an enviable sound. He had no need to resort to gimmicks; Rachlin is the real deal. Slatkin gave him plenty of leeway.

The concert concluded with a taut performance of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique". In spite of the orchestra sounding a bit sterile, Slatkin coaxed the ensemble to give their best effort. Slatkin offers a sense of polish and refinement but he lacks the highly charged, dripping-with-intensity dynamism of a Gustavo Dudamel or Michael Tilson Thomas. I can't help but wonder what the Seattle Symphony might sound like with a truly charismatic and vitalizing force on the podium.

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