Washington National SO/Slatkin, Barbican Hall, London

Rocket goes with a bang
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The Independent Culture

A week before taking the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington on tour, the BBC's maestro, Leonard Slatkin, who is also the music director of the Washington orchestra, launched the first American performance of John Corigliano's The Mannheim Rocket. Our premiere was given last Friday at the Barbican in London, and boy did it fly!

There were whistles, cowbells, a hammer and a glass in a bucket, cellophane and a lion's roar, not to mention sundry percussion and a huge attachment of winds and strings. Mind you, it took some time to gain momentum, this 10-minute firestorm, starting from the strike of a match through to a deafening crash that not even Wagner (a quote fromMeistersinger) could abort. Midway we stopped off for a heavenly reminiscence of Gurrelieder's "Prelude", but the fizz and crackle of the rest made Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine sound like The Magic Roundabout. And what a fabulous test this was for the Barbican's improved acoustics. We were pinned to our seats.

A great opener, I thought, and a canny idea to follow it with Bernstein's Chichester Psalms; tempered music by comparison, though the Brighton Festival Chorus projected well and the treble Pablo Strong engaged us with his confidence and accuracy.

Slatkin is a master Bernsteinian (his dancing shoulders could have been Lenny's own), but the real test of his skills came later when an elegant Mikhail Pletnev provoked a storm of approval with Rachmaninov's Paganini Rhapsody. Outwardly ice-cold, he sat himself down, adjusted his cuffs, and folded his arms while Slatkin and his players dealt the opening bars. He would poke at the keys, or stroke them, or dazzle us with a delicate sequence of runs where hammers and ivory seemed to play no part.

Stooped, immobile and seemingly unconcerned by anything other than the course of his fingers, Pletnev was the ultimate manifestation of deceptive appearances. Our eyes told us nothing but our ears heard all – a huge curve of dynamics, lightning reflexes, teasing rubato and thundering cadenzas that seemed all the more remarkable for being thrown off seemingly without the least effort. Slatkin framed an extraordinarily sympathetic and well co-ordinated accompaniment, which was no mean feat given the quixotic impulses of his soloist. I wouldn't call it a great performance (it was too whimsical for that) but it certainly got people talking.

After Corigliano's Rocket and Pletnev's rocketing Rachmaninov, Slatkin's rendition of Dvorak's symphony From the New World was something of a letdown. For a start, the orchestra sounded tired. And although there were some nice details to the interpretation (the strings' lilting response to the first movement's flute theme being one), tempos were unexpectedly erratic and the woodwinds undercharacterised, Kathryn Meany's superb cor anglais solo excepted. I'm thinking here of the scherzo, particularly the cooing wood-dove episode in the trio (flutes and clarinets), which seemed unduly rushed.

Still, the finale worked fairly well, and there were the encores to consider; some tender Walton (Henry V) and Sousa's Liberty Bell (the Monty Python theme), where Slatkin turned to cue our clapping, a nice bit of pre-Proms audience interaction and a friendly way to send us off home.