Innocent as charged

Yes, it's true. Leonard Slatkin, the new boss of Washington's National Symphony Orchestra, really does prefer American music - and he's about to give us the benefit of his experience. By Edward Seckerson Photo by Edward Sykes

In September, Washington DC was gearing up for another inauguration. And notwithstanding the minor distraction of the then upcoming presidential elections, Leonard Slatkin - the newly installed music director of the National Symphony Orchestra - was wasting no time in getting his message across. That's the way it is in DC. You send messages, people listen. They may not hear, but they listen. On Slatkin's opening night, they listened to Bernstein, Barber, Hanson, Baker and Ellington. That's 100 per cent home-grown produce. That's a message. By week three of the season, the tally of repertoire was 11 works, nine of them by Americans. Now that's not a message, that's a manifesto.

So Mister Slatkin went to Washington and began talking like a politician: "Look, this country doesn't need another Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Mahler orchestra - we've got enough of them. Twenty-five years ago, this country's major orchestras weren't defined just by how well they played, but by the repertoire they played. Whatever happened to that identification of orchestras and conductors with specific repertoire? And that's part of what I want to do here. If you're going to call an orchestra the National Symphony, it has to reflect the national character. Which is a lot of things, clearly. And even though I did just that in Saint Louis, it seems that people take this concept in a much more serious way here in Washington. It's a very political town in more ways than one. If you say something at a party or reception, the next day everyone knows about it. Actually, that's an upside of being here: you get to know things before they happen..."

For National Symphony subscribers, prior notice of change was a sealed glossy pamphlet inscribed with the words "The Slatkin Era Unfolds". But change is about more than programming innovations, however dramatic and far-reaching they may be. Slatkin is committed to a total make-over of the orchestra and its environment. And it may yet prove advantageous that of all the orchestras he has worked with "back home", the NSO is the one he knows least well. Building character and attitude in an orchestra, shaping personnel without too much blood-letting, is a long process that is best started from scratch. Then again, how do you cultivate the sound of an orchestra, or gauge your progress, when the hall you perform in conveys such a distorted image of it. Twenty-five years on, the John F Kennedy Center's main concert hall is looking awful and sounding worse - that's Slatkin's view. He has pressed all along for a total refit, cosmetic and acoustical. And he's succeeded. It happens next year.

Between 11 and 13 October of this year, though, at a time when Washington's main thoroughfare (the mall extending from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and beyond) normally begins disappearing under the seasonal carpet of leaves, a quilt now comprising some 45,000 panels - a mere handful of the lives lost to Aids - was once more laid out where the eyes of the world would see it. It was this project - "The Names Project" - that moved the American composer John Corigliano to pen one of the most widely performed contemporary works of recent times: his Symphony No 1. A choral offshoot of that work - Of Rage and Remembrance (a reshaping of the symphony's third movement, "Giulio's Song") - serves as a moving preface to the symphony itself on Slatkin's first RCA recording with his new orchestra. The final pages, where members of the chorus who have lost friends remember them, chanting their names, is a devastating revision of John Cage's "chance" technique: the names change with each performance.

Neither the choice of repertoire nor the timing of this release leave one in any doubt as to where Slatkin chooses to nail his "primary colours". Next year he takes the Corigliano Symphony to 10 major American cities as part of his first national tour with the NSO. Doubtless there'll be those who'll question that choice, but all the more reason for it. Another of his upcoming projects (one that follows on from this summer's Proms appearance, when he brought Harlem to Kensington) is a disc devoted to the music of Duke Ellington - "an African American composer from Washington DC". You reach out into a community via the repertoire you choose to play, he says.

And when you leave home to venture abroad, you take a little of home with you. If the promoters will let you. The repertoire list for next year's international tour contains only two European works: Sibelius's Second Symphony and the Beethoven "Emperor" Concerto. For the rest, it's William Schuman's Fifth Symphony, Walter Piston's Second, Copland's Third, the William Bolcom Piano Concerto, and a new Percussion Concerto (for Evelyn Glennie) by Joseph Schwantner. Smaller pieces by Ives, Gershwin and Arthur Foote complete the roster.

But Slatkin is wagering now that promoters - particularly in Germany - will be pressing for an Ives/Beethoven/ Sibelius package. "If I had my druthers," he says, "I'd go with Ives/Schwantner/ Copland 3 for London." So if that's not what we get, you'll know why. Incidentally, if I had my "druthers", Slatkin would be principal conductor (not just, as is soon to be confirmed, principal guest conductor) of our own Philharmonia. Here's a man who's not afraid to say he'd rather conduct first-rate American pieces than second-rate European ones. I feel much the same about conductors.

Anyway, back to touring. "Look, it works the other way around, too. When your orchestras come to the US, we don't hear them play British music because our promoters don't want it! And yet the Berlin Philharmonic can play Brahms wherever they go... Ask yourself why it is that the Proms are so adventurous and successful? It's not just the prices, is it? It's trust." One hundred years' worth. And subsidy.

Which is where the BBC comes into its own. Tomorrow Slatkin presides over a major UK premiere that only the BBC - in the present climate - could have made possible. William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience is the rich picking of a lifelong fascination - some would say obsession - with the visionary writings and philosophies of the English poet, painter and engraver, William Blake. Bolcom calls it "A Musical Illumination of the Poems of William Blake" and its creation occupied him, at varying levels of intensity, over a period of some 26 years.

"Without Contraries is no progression," wrote Blake, and it's those "contraries" that dominate both the "songs" and their "settings" in this huge, all- embracing cantata. Just as Blake used his whole culture, past and present, high-flown and vernacular - from classical verse to street-song and doggerel - as sources for his many poetic styles, so too does Bolcom. The English madrigal sits cheek by jowl here with the American bar-room ballad, blues and soul, jazz and gospel rekindle their natural kinship, serialism rules without tyranny, the dissonant rubs shoulders with the sweetly consonant. So a gloomy song about the poor and underprivileged finds expression in gritty contemporary rock - unforgiving electric guitar to the fore - while "The Shepherd" is carefree American bucolic, western-style. Town and country, inner-city frowns and Arcadian smiles, misery and mirth. Contraries, conflicts and contradictions, different musics spilling into each other until finally a kind of universal harmony is culled from disharmony. A mad, glorious, inglorious, synthesis. A universal song.

Bolcom knows a thing or two about song, songsters, songfulness. He and his wife Joan Morris (who has sung in all but one performance of Innocence and Experience and does so again tomorrow night) were prime movers in the ragtime revival of the Sixties, and together they have toured and recorded compendious programmes drawn from two centuries of American song. So nothing here is parodistic. The unforgettable, Shaker-like "To mercy, pity, peace, and love" ("The Divine Image") has been touched with Stephen Foster's kindly hand, a wrong note here and there tempering innocent harmonies with the pain of experience.

So there you have it: innocence and experience. The fundamentals of human nature. Blake recognised that. He was, in the words of Alfred Kazin, "a peculiarly disturbed and disturbing prophet of the condition of modern man". Says Bolcom, "Blake tells us what we are and contrasts this with what we think we are... He realised that only when people face up to what they really are can they know joy. I think that joy, ultimately, is what my settings of Blake's poems are all about. I don't mean just happiness, I mean joy, the kind you find at the end of 'The Book of Job': after the worst things that could possibly happen to him, Job is left with joy because God finally tells him the truth about himself. That's it. In a nutshell. In truth there is joy."

And it's there in Bolcom's final setting, "A Divine Image": "Cruelty has a human heart/ And jealousy a human face/ Terror, the human form divine..." We should feel ashamed of the indictment but with a twist of supreme irony - a Mahlerian apotheosis with a reggae beat - Bolcom makes us want to get up and dance.

Last words to Slatkin. His championship of Bolcom's work reached its own apotheosis at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1993 with a 25-minute ovation and a place on just about everybody's "best of year" lists. "In our lifetime we've seen certain works - even works like Mahler Eight - move from being rare events to really quite regular occurrences. Make no mistake, this work restores to us the idea of the concert as 'an event'. A happening. And it's not going to happen again in a very long time." Don't say we didn't tell you.

'Songs of Innocence and of Experience', 7pm tomorrow, RFH, SBC, London SE1 (pounds 11 unreserved: 0171-960 4242), and live on Radio 3. Slatkin's NSO recording of Corigliano's First Symphony is on RCA / BMG 09026 68450-2

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