Aaron Copland’s Symphony no. 3 embodies the majestic landscapes that define America – towering mountains, cascading rivers and rolling plains that stretch on and on as far as the eye can see. But wide-open spaces can quickly become vacuous. Last on the National Symphony Orchestra’s program celebrating conductor Leonard Slatkin’s 75th birthday, the Copland redeemed those empty landscapes with aplomb.

Leonard Slatkin
© Cybelle Codish

By his own admission in a short introduction, Slatkin described the first work on the program as veering into “downright corny” aesthetics. The piece, Yet Another set of Variations (On a Theme of Paganini) features 11 variations of Paganini’s 24th Caprice by different composers bookended by an introduction and finale that Slatkin composed himself. Slatkin had commissioned a smaller, four-variation version in 1996, and he wanted to expand the work to celebrate his 75th birthday. Interwoven with brief glimmers of Paganini is the tune Happy Birthday, blockbuster movie themes, Chopin’s Funeral March, and literal stomping. No doubt that the 24th Caprice lives in the land of the overplayed, but it arrived there because it symbolizes the classic model of virtuosity and poise. On that front, this overworked ho-hum patchwork rendition hardly resembles Paganini at all. Like Happy Birthday, it is better suited to small gatherings of loving friends where cliché and inside jokes are welcomed respite, rather than the concert hall.

With Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor following directly, pianist Olga Kern promised to re-ground the program in substance. But while technically faultless, Kern’s performance was strangely impersonal and perfunctory with the odd emotional gesture – a balletic curling of her left hand toward her heart after pulling a phrase from the keys in the first movement, a dramatic hair flip going into the second – that felt planned rather than inspired in the present. Stage presence aside, the sound itself never arrived at a moment where Kern placed her individual, remarkable stamp on the concerto. Anyone could have been playing.

Closing the evening, Copland’s Third Symphony rolled up revolutionary in comparison. In another brief introduction, Slatkin noted that context for the work is vital to understanding its significance. Composed in 1944, the symphony settles into America’s grappling with identity and hope as World War 2 raged to a close. For Slatkin, it proclaims a desperately-needed optimism for the country, but also for humanity. “If there is a work that represents how the world should feel, this is the one,” he said before casting the downbeat. With this final number, Slatkin substantiated his endearing and beloved reputation, as well as his musical prowess. The work, from start to finish, was majestic, both controlled and roaming free in a way that only years of experience can master. I can’t imagine a better birthday salute than that.