Respect Your Elgar

Make it new: Leonard Slatkin conducts the National Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.Photo: Chris Lee

Orchestras the world over visit New York each year, and critics habitually complain about the hackneyed repertory favorites they invariably bring with them. Lately, though, some maverick conductors have been throwing caution to the winds. When Esa-Pekka Salonen came to town with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last month, he offered a pair of concerts crammed with dangerously stimulating music. Conductors such as Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco) and Christoph von Dohnanyi (Cleveland) have recently confounded timid presenters with their enterprising program choices. And of course Leonard Slatkin has been doing just that for years, first with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and now with the National Symphony Orchestra, which arrived in Carnegie Hall not long ago to play two concerts of nothing but New York premieres.

Such daunting prospects no longer even seem to frighten audiences. But then, one of Slatkin’s most intriguing novelties could hardly have threatened conservative ears: the almost mythological Symphony No. 3 by Sir Edward Elgar, whose first two essays in the form are now popular fare. When the composer died in 1934, he left extensive sketches for a Third Symphony, but they were never considered sufficiently developed to complete, until British composer-musicologist Anthony Payne took up the challenge in 1993 and prepared a version with the blessing of the Elgar estate. The results are fascinating to hear – once. Elgar’s noble manner and Edwardian generosity are unmistakable, but unlike such famous torsos as Berg’s Lulu or the Mahler Tenth Symphony, the Elgar Third has just too many gaps to be filled in; even a musician as deeply versed in the idiom as Payne can only hint at what the composer might have done.

New American music otherwise occupied Slatkin, and I was especially taken by William Bolcom’s Sixth Symphony, written for the National Symphony in 1997. No composer is more comfortable working in today’s postmodern, anything-goes style than Bolcom, who fearlessly helps himself to whatever will give him the precise effect he wants in order to develop a four-movement score of unusual emotional range and ruminative power. The stylistic references here range from Josquin des Prez and Schumann to Vincent Youmans, but the sheer creative zest, self-confidence, and compositional skill make the music sound completely fresh and original. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s deftly contrived Images for two pianos (Katia and Marielle Labeque) and orchestra completed the program, musical impressions of five paintings on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

Slatkin took an even bigger chance by devoting the second concert entirely to John Corigliano’s A Dylan Thomas Trilogy. This evening-length score is derived from various works based on poems by Thomas, written over the past 40 years and now refashioned into what the composer calls a “memory play in the form of an oratorio” for tenor, countertenor, baritone, chorus, and orchestra. Some will automatically certify this compilation a major statement simply because Corigliano brooded so long and so hard over the material; others may feel that a lot of miscellanea has been rather awkwardly glued together in hopes that the whole will somehow seem more important than its parts. Both views can be defended. Certainly Corigliano writes very differently today than he did at age 22, and the Coplandesque tonal style of the earliest music here, Fern Hill, sits uncomfortably with the more theatrically confrontational manner he had developed by the time he composed Poem on His Birthday in 1976. And yet that shattering Thomas poem inspired some of Corigliano’s truest, most deeply expressive music. Slatkin clearly has no doubts about the music’s worth, and he treated the trilogy like a masterpiece. And that’s as it should be – if only more conductors shared his commitment to new music.

Respect Your Elgar