It used to be that the major symphony orchestras toured the country, giving small communities a taste of big city. Now, with arts budgets pared to the bone and,at least, our own public radio station opting for all talk all the time instead of live broadcasts, it’s rare to hear anything other than our own orchestras. Since 1992, In a rare exception The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. has sponsored an annual residency for the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), which this year chose North Carolina as its venue. Between March 9 and 19, the orchestra is presenting a total of nine orchestral concerts, including three concerts for young people, and dozens of master classes and other educational and outreach activities, mostly in schools and colleges. Proceeds from all concerts remain in the state to benefit presenting organizations. The NSO spent this last weekend in the Triangle Area and on Sunday night presented a concert in Meymandi Hall that showed what our own “next great orchestra” has to work on to become world-class. 

This is the ninth season for conductor Leonard Slatkin as Music Director of the NSO, and his imprint on the orchestra was evident. The musicians followed his cues and intents faithfully and in minute detail. Slatkin is a master of the dynamic nuance, and the sound gradations he got were myriad. The strings, especially the first violins, demonstrated a precision and smoothness that could give rise to nothing but envy, with a razor-sharp attack and a pianissimo that was unbelievably smooth and flutter free. The brass sound was clean, with smooth delivery and without rasp. Only the woodwinds were occasionally imprecise in entries, but even that minor flaw was relative.

The program was a mix of the old and the new. The opening was a world-premiere of Cut Time, a two-minute bit of fluff by Duke’s ordinarily austere Stephen Jaffe. Originally composed in 2004 as a work for two pianos, a present for pianists Francis Wang and Barbara Rowan upon their retirement from the faculty of UNC-CH Department of Music. It is a joyous, jazzy work, based entirely on a three-note motive, using every instrument in the regular orchestral roster and then some. It presented a side of Jaffe that we usually don’t hear, a kind of 21st century Morton Gould.

From the new to the old. Haydn’s Symphony No.94, the “Surprise,” continued the sense of fun. Slatkin’s ability to gradually ratchet up the tension, gave it a freshness and vivacity that is so often lost in the humdrum Haydn performances. It was possible to visualize the sly fox Haydn conducting the premiere at the Salomon concerts in London, and chuckling at the startled reaction of the audience. Only the striking timpani beat near the end of the finale was a shade off beat, which spoiled its effect somewhat.

One thing we found peculiar was the program note by veteran Richard Freed, who claimed that the Andante was based on “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” True the theme repeats each note and has the same rhythm as the nursery tune, but the melody is not the same. We may sound pedantic here, but the NSO‘s residency is in large part educational, and a statement that confuses “same” with “similar,” alleging causality to boot, is a bit sloppy in the critical thinking we would like to be teaching our kids – even about music. The program’s page layout designer didn’t help the issue by making Freed’s misstatement a pull-out quote.

Back to the new, and a work with the longest title of any classical work we can recall. The Throne of the Third Heaven of the National Millennium General Assembly, commissioned jointly by the NSO and the ASCAP foundation from young composer Jefferson Friedman was premiered last October. The Throne is an enormously complicated work, not least of all because Friedman attempted to “describe” a piece of visual art in music. The work in question is what we now call in the art world an “installation,” made entirely of found materials and the life’s work of James Hampton (1909-1964). Hampton, a janitor in Washington D.C. for the General Services Administration, collected pieces of wood, metal, glass, cardboard and other discarded materials, overlaying them with gold and silver foil to create 180 objects arranged according to his religious, but non-denominational apocalyptical vision. In a work that utilizes some of the same structural principals as Hampton’s Throne, Friedman employs Hampton’s technique building layers of sound within the orchestra, using found objects as percussion instruments – as well as chorale melodies – to create a grand musical symmetry. Fortunately, the program notes provided a small photograph of Hampton’s Throne as a way for the audience to follow the parallels. It was a fascinating work – one we’d like to hear again a few times before passing judgment on it. Interestingly, this “translation” of sculpture into music required extensive explanation in words in order to be fully appreciated, just one more example of the uniqueness of expressive language of each of the arts. For more information and a sound clip see ( showIndividual&entity_id=5003&source_type=C [inactive 10/06])

The official program ended with a performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No.7, Op.70. Like the Haydn earlier, it showcased the NSO at its best, with the velvety strings and sonorous brass, in particular. But in contrast to the cheery Haydn, Slatkin selected perhaps Dvorak’s darkest score, making this a well-rounded concert. Both orchestra and conductor have enviable control over the new and the old, the light and the serious. Slatkin conducted All three major works on this program with a masterful sense of their large design, with every dynamic change selected for its local effect as well as its structural function.

Slatkin and the NSO rewarded the standing ovation with two contrasting encores. The first was for muted strings alone, the interlude “Touch her Soft Lips and Part” from William Walton’s incidental music for the film Henry V; the second was Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes,” with Slatkin demonstrating his antic side by conducting the audience in clapping with comic gestures and sauntering on and off stage with his hands in his pockets – just to show the orchestra can play without a leader(?) The audience loved it. Considering the home venue of the NSO, we wonder how often they have to go through that act.

The NSO has a couple more gigs in Greensboro, Boone and Spindale. Check our calendars for schedules and try to catch a performance if there are any tickets left.