DETROIT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
LEONARD SLATKIN/ SOLGABETTA
BERLIOZ/ BARBER/ RACHMANINOFF (2-14-10)
HIGH VOLTAGE

By Lawrence Budmen

In November, 2009 Leonard Slatkin suffered a heart attack while conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony. After surgery and an enforced absence from the podium, Slatkin has resumed his concert schedule. On the afternoon of February 14, 2010 he led the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in a program of works by Berlioz, Barber and Rachmaninoff at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, Florida, USA.

Curiously Slatkin's greatest podium successes have taken place in the American Midwest. Most significantly, a long running relationship with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra that lasted over two decades. Contrary to publicists' lore, the St. Louis orchestra was already a fine ensemble before Slatkin's arrival. Nevertheless his high octane leadership propelled the orchestra into one of America's best. Inspired performances and recordings of Russian, American and British music (plus later forays into Mahler) became specialties of the house. Concurrently Slatkin had a productive artistic relationship as director of the Minnesota Orchestra's summer concerts and was a regular guest with the stellar Chicago Symphony. He did not seem to travel well. His directorships of the BBC Symphony and the National symphony of Washington, D.C. were disappointing. Now Slatkin has returned to the American heartland of his musical triumphs. Commencing with 2008-2009 season, he became music director of the Detroit ensemble. (He also is principal guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and London's Royal Philharmonic.)

The history of the Detroit Symphony has been uneven. There have been glory periods under such legends as Ossip Gabrilowitsch (in the 1920's and 30's), Paul Paray (in the 1950's), Antal Dorati (briefly in the late 1970's) and, more recently Neeme Jarvi (from 1990 through 2005). In between those peaks, the ensemble sometimes sank to a mediocre level. Indeed reports from Detroit indicated the orchestra was in danger of decline again during the five year interim after Jarvi's departure. Recent reviews from Michigan expressed nothing but enthusiasm for Slatkin's initial concerts. The Miami performance confirmed those reports. There was real chemistry between conductor and orchestra.

Slatkin walks slower and looks somewhat worn, post coronary. (Last summer he looked hale and hearty at Tanglewood.) On the podium he remains vigorous, the beat absolutely clear and precise. Moreover the Detroit ensemble was in fine fettle, playing with reserves of tonal richness, energy and strong articulation. There was some ragged string playing in the introduction to Berlioz's Corsaire Overture, long a Slatkin showpiece. Once the band was warmed up, the mellow brass section blazed impressively, winds exuded unusual subtlety and delicacy and Slatkin whipped up the fervor level to an exciting climax.

Samuel Barber's all too rarely heard Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op.22 showcased the dazzling talents of Sol Gabetta. The Argentine born Ms. Gabetta studied at Moscow Conservatory and was recipient of the Natalia Gutman Award as well as major competition plaudits including Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition. Her 2007 debut recording of Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations and Saint-Saens' Concerto No.1 was impressive, reveling in sheer gorgeous tone with the ability to caress a melodic line. Barber's neglected masterwork was the perfect vehicle for this gifted young artist's flaming interpretive impetuosity. She produces a warm, burnished sound that can fill a large hall; yet she can thin her tone down to the finest thread. Her sheer agility (playing with accuracy at true intonation at the fastest speed) and devil may care daring are matched by refined musicianship.

In the first movement Allegro moderato, Gabetta's lithe, high speed playing was capped by a stunning cadenza, breathtaking in its difficulty and the soloist's seemingly fearless virtuosity. Slatkin is something of a Barber specialist, having recorded many of this American romanticist's scores (as has the Detroit orchestra under Jarvi). From the opening bars, the orchestral textures were clear and transparent, almost Mozartean in precision and chamber music ambience; yet Slatkin injected heft and power when the work's ambivalent mood swings called that forth. The Andante sostenuto is one of those glorious Barber slow movements that sing with inspired melody. Like the corresponding movements of the composer's string quartet (the famous Adagio for Strings), violin and piano concertos and 1st Symphony, this section spotlights a haunting melody, played in duet by the oboe and cello soloist. Gabetta's deep tone and sumptuous line produced a memorable vignette of lyrical rapture, exquisitely accompanied by conductor and ensemble. The final movement of this concerto is not only fast paced but, like much of the score, showcases the instrument's upper register. (One of the reasons this piece is so rarely performed is the difficulty of playing consistently in tune and speedily in the cello's higher reaches.) Gabetta's vigorous attack and agile command vanquished every difficulty, offering a truly incendiary conclusion.

For an encore (following a standing ovation) she offered Dolcissimo by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. Beginning with soft, eerie high harmonics, the piece quotes thematic threads from Bach's cello suites. Gabetta's rich array of tonal colors was winsome, her eloquently phrased Bach melodies magnificent. At one point Vasks requires the soloist to sing along with the Bachian line. Gabetta vocalized in a high soprano of surprising purity. Kudos to this immensely talented artist for choosing a concerto vehicle outside the standard cello repertoire and offering a challenging, musically rewarding and expressive encore.

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27 has long been a Slatkin specialty. Almost three decades ago he recorded a magnificent account of this brooding, romantic symphony with the St. Louis Symphony - one of his early recordings with that orchestra . The Detroit Symphony sounded terrific in this grandiose symphonic essay. The plush string tone was lustrous and rich. Concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert's extended solo was sweetly beautiful and phrased with long lined eloquence. This was Rachmaninoff in the Russian manner, filled with soul. In the famous Adagio, in addition to the gorgeous string playing and evocative clarinet solo by Thomas Oien, Slatkin drew sumptuous vibrations, masterfully tracing the music's inexorable line. The entire performance of this hour long symphony was passionate, engulfed in the aura of the romantic era. Slatkin commanded surging climaxes in the exciting Allegro vivace finale - a stellar reading of an iconic work.

A vigorous, colorful performance of the Farandole from Bizet's L'Arlessiene Suite No. 2 (offered as an encore) brought the afternoon's high voltage music making to a close.

On March 29 the Adrienne Arsht Center's Masterworks Series presents the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach with soloist Lang Lang in a program featuring Prokofiev's Symphony No.1 (Classical), and Piano Concerto No.3 and Beethoven's Symphony No.7. For information, see www.arshtcenter.org.

 


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