Conductor: Leonard Slatkin
Rossini: Overture to La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”)
Slatkin: The Raven
Sibelius: Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 43
Leonard Slatkin left us last June to become the conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, among many other engagements, so it was quite a bittersweet feeling to see him back in the DC area, but away from the Kennedy Center, where he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra for the past 12 years. No matter what one thinks of his tenure, he was a familiar face who slowly but surely brought the once provincial national orchestra to a much wider audience and spared no effort in outreach programs. On Thursday evening, he was back in our neck of the woods for a concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with a surprisingly diverse, and ultimately mostly satisfying, program.
The first piece was the overture of Rossini’s La gazza ladra, a long-forgotten opera, which apparently deserves to remain in oblivion, except for the vivacious, infectious overture. The strategically placed drum rolls, the well-known oboe tune and the general brilliant sound proved its unique appeal, and it sure was an upbeat way to get things started.
The second number was quite unusual, on paper and live. Composed by Slatkin himself in 1971, this piece was background music to five poems by Edgar Poe originally meant to be read by the all-too-appropriate Vincent Price. On Thursday, he had five different actors on the stage: Tony Tsendeas was adequately eerie in The Sleeper, efficiently backed up by the wind instruments, Rosemary Knower got eventually carried away by the written Bells and the live harp and percussions, Denis Diggs sweetly evoked Romance on a lovely waltz, Jon Spelman solemnly recalled the greatness of Ancient Rome with The Coliseum, accompanied by some strong, sonorous brass, and finally, my personal favorite, John Astin and the full orchestra treated us to a creepily effective version of The Raven. What would have been the perfect performance for Halloween turned out to be pretty engaging and fun, even if the timing was not quite right and the sound system was experiencing occasional issues.
The evening ended with Sibelius’ Symphony No 2, a fairly light work from the composer who I’ve always found so incredibly good at evoking the cold, majestic landscapes of his native Finland. Written during his stay at Verdi’s place in Italy, it is therefore no surprise that this symphony is generally sunnier, except for the drama-laden second movement, than the rest of his oeuvre. The repeated first three notes of the opening movement bring to mind gentle waves, before the mood turns darker. A spooky pizzicato for basses and cellos opens the following movement, but the music becomes even more tragic, with barely a glimmer of hope, and the fact that Sibelius had originally labeled the two main themes “Death” and “Christ” says it all. Fortunately, things perk up in the third movement, which opens with a vigorous string attack, and a swooning romantic melody later takes over and brings the symphony to its Tchaikovskian finale. With performances like this, maestro Slatkin is welcome back anytime.