The Detroit Symphony Orchestra opened the 2015-2016 Season with considerable flair and panache. Headlined by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Leonard Slatkin chose a unique and varied program to begin the year. As the conductor himself pointed out; "Opening Night usually isn't where we challenge the audience". But challenge he did, with the Detroit Symphony playing at its most cohesive and convincing.

Leonard Slatkin © Donald Dietz
Leonard Slatkin
© Donald Dietz

The Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture is almost always a crowd-pleaser, but it proved even more so thanks to the excellent strings and woodwinds on display. Slatkin took special care to make sure that instruments cut through the heaviest textures, which enabled rarely heard details to emerge. The brass of this orchestra have had concerns over the past few seasons; they were in very fine form. What was most impressive was the overall sense that this was great ensemble, as opposed to a group of terrific individual soloists.

Thibaudet was soloist in a highly-charged reading of George Gershwin's Concerto in F. Always a Slatkin specialty, this jazzy-yet-serious music brought out the best in both pianist and orchestra. The outer movements were stunningly colorful, while the Detroit players were clearly willing to find a happy balance between "cool" and "poised" in the inner Adagio. Best of all was Thilbaudet, who found both flamboyance and elegance within the work. Clearly, he had a great deal of fun, and the orchestra did as well. Although the solo instrumental contributions were generally fine, the trumpet solo in the slow movement had much feeling but questionable pitch. For his part, Slatkin was both excitable and exact in forming a successful orchestral framework. He and Thibaudet duetted at the piano for the final movement of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite as a touching encore.

Jacob Druckman's Mirage was a Leonard Slatkin commission for the United States bicentennial in 1976, while he was an assistant in St. Louis. It combines sudden and startling bursts of orchestral color with quotations from great composers of the early 20th Century, notably Debussy and Stravinsky. It also requires almost a third of the players to be offstage as a "second orchestra". As its title suggests, the episodes from both orchestras are fleeting and sometimes gone before one even notices. Slatkin and the orchestra played with commitment and a keen ear for the various shifts in mood and style. Unfortunately, 15 minutes is too long for such an experience, and the piece tired the ear about half way through, despite the obvious commitment from all involved.

Finally, the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier was masterfully played and conducted. Most striking was the huge dynamic range that Slatkin was able to extract from his ensemble. There were some truly exceptional moments, from the Don Juan-like horn calls that opened the work, to the lifting and danceable waltz sections. The various soloists of the orchestra proved wholly winning, while the thrilling closing pages demonstrated Slatkin at his best. At times, the Suite felt episodic and seemed to lack cohesion, but the character of the orchestra and ability to project a wide range of emotions was ultimately very satisfying, and bodes well for the coming season.

***11