Emerson String Quartet Performs with David Finckel for the Last Time in NYC
Spring for Music 2013: Christoph Eschenbach Presents All-Russian Program

Spring for Music 2013: Leonard Slatkin Leads the Detroit Symphony

by Michael Cirigliano II

Detroit Symphony, Spring for Music, NPR, Torsten Kjellstrand, Feast of Music

All photo credits: Torsten Kjellstrand, NPR

The vibrant, celebratory mood that has come to be associated with Carnegie Hall's Spring for Music festival was in full effect this week, with a handful of the country's most innovative orchestras descending on Seventh Avenue for the third consecutive year. Unfortunately, bittersweet sentiments also came into the fold this year, with Carnegie recently announcing that—due to lack of funding and long-term sponsorship—next year's events will be the festival's last.

Adding to the disappointment was the Oregon Symphony's announcement last fall that because of financial issues, they would not be able to accept their return engagement this year, despite being the critical darlings of 2011's inaugural season. (Although Carnegie Hall subsidizes the cost of the rehearsing and performing in the venue, as well as all marketing and promotional costs, the orchestras are solely responsible for their musicians' travel and lodging.)

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, already slated for a performance Friday evening, were tapped to take over Oregon's Thursday-night slot, with Music Director Leonard Slatkin filling out a program based on a concert presentation of Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins. Given the DSO's own financial troubles and the musician strike that consumed the organization in 2011, it was incredibly fitting that this particular orchestra would graciously fill in for their brethren—a true sign of camaraderie, and evidence that performing-arts organizations can actually rise above their economic woes.

Thankfully, the Detroit players were in stunning form on Thursday night, navigating their way through a program showcasing the turbulent role of composers working shortly after the ravages of World War I. In addition to the Weill, Slatkin chose a trio of short tone poems that highlighted the orchestra's glossy sound and sense of color: Rachmaninov's Caprice Bohémien and Isle of the Dead, as well as Ravel's La Valse.

The brooding Rachmaninov set gave the orchestra room to show their diverse skills, especially in Isle of the Dead, where dark-hued brasses and expressive low strings elicited a true Russian sense of style. As the bumpy boat ride to the fabled island crested and fell in 5/8 time, the group's sound organically blossomed into stormy climaxes without ever becoming brash or overbearing.

Storm Large, Spring for Music, Detroit Symphony

Weill's Seven Deadly Sins, despite being a piece of sophisticated cabaret, is not performed nearly enough, and the Detroit players gave an enthralling performance that made a strong case for its inclusion in the concert-hall canon. Originally conceived as a ballet for Balanchine's dance company, Les Ballets, Weill eventually added vocal elements, envisioning a psychological drama wherein two sisters (Anna I and Anna II) travel throughout the United States seeking enough money to build a little house for their family on the idyllic shores of Louisiana.

Performing as both Anna I and Anna II, soprano Storm Large gave an electrifying performance, using her pop-music pedigree and extravagant acting chops to bring out the work's foundation in bold European jazz. Enhancing the clarity of the ac ion was W.H. Auden's English translation of the original Brecht libretto, which Large (as well as an all-male quartet portraying Anna's family) delivered with clear diction, even when transforming her voice with sultry, throaty inflections. In the final movement, "Envy," Large tore the ceiling off of the hall, gutturally decrying the sisters' misery living under the weight of an ultra-capitalist society.

Slatkin and the Detroit players have certainly made their mark on the festival, as evidenced by the hundreds of Detroit natives that traveled to New York City to see their hometown orchestra at work. Witnessing such enthusiasm from their patrons communicates a much-needed hope for the orchestral community that these musicians will continue to be supported, despite the naysayers that constantly decry the death of performing-arts organizations.

Case in point: The woman seated to my right quickly introduced herself as a DSO patron when arriving at her seat, and marveled at each piece as it was performed. Eyeing my pen and incessant note-taking, she managed the courage to ask me at the end of the concert, "What do you think of our orchestra? Aren't they fantastic?"

Yes, ma'am. They absolutely are. 

Spring for Music, 2013, Carnegie Hall