It is interesting that Leonard Slatkin would announce his decision to step down from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra right before he premiered his newest composition, but whatever the motivations, all eyes were on the conductor as he led Mahler’s imposing “Resurrection” Symphony in conjunction with a touching tribute to his parents. Slatkin, who is the son of the late Felix Slatkin and Eleanor Aller, presented Kinah as an elegy to their musical partnership. The elder Slatkin passed away at 47, the evening before he was to perform Brahms’ Double Concerto with his wife; they had never done so in a public concert.

Leonard Slatkin © Cybelle Codish
Leonard Slatkin
© Cybelle Codish
Using parts of the themes within the Concerto’s slow movement, Leonard Slatkin used the Detroit string section to excellent effect, along with some highly evocative percussion. The use of violin and cello (the instruments of his father and mother) were used intelligently, and not once was there any sense of trying to copy Brahms in any way. In fact, Slatkin commented that he decided against using any complete phrases from the concerto, as a reminder that his parents never had the chance to perform the work. Despite moments where Slatkin’s new work turned somewhat noisy and thick, there were far more moments of geninue beauty and poignancy. This was a wholly sincere effort that left many audience members genuinely shaken and moved.

As for the Mahler, this is nothing short of a Slatkin specialty. Although he performs very little Mahler and Bruckner, the Second remains one of his high points on disc and in concert. The Detroit Symphony played with exceptional virtuosity and great power. Although Slatkin is not always the most exciting conductor, here he was flexible and wholly engaged. The Detroit strings and winds were especially committed, with the lower sections of the orchestra willing to grind out the powerful sections of the outer movements. First-desk solos were excellent, and there was real energy behind the climaxes. Interpretively speaking, I have rarely heard a Slatkin performance this cogent and fully formed. Every bar had character, and the orchestra was more than willing to follow his lead.

Vocally, soprano Melissa Citro impressed me more than mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, who tended to have a heavy, almost fuzzy sound around her tone, and suffered pitch problems here and there. Citro was far less expressive physically, but blended well with O’Connor and easily floated above the orchestra when required. The Wayne State University Chorus and the Detroit Choral Society stunningly rendered Mahler’s choral writing, especially the crucial sections for male voices. Diction was particularly impressive. Slatkin deserves credit for balancing his orchestra so well against the (admittedly huge) choir, and even the soloists were audible at the very end.

Minor complaints include some iffy offstage brass (not this orchestra’s strongest section) and some unexpected flubs from the winds. At times, the upper strings also seemed somewhat strained. On the other hand, the closing pages demonstrated how well the brass could play at full volume, and Slatkin took the time and effort to make sure they didn’t drown out everyone else. As a total experience, Slatkin gave us a Mahler Second without mannerism or ego, while never losing sight of the work’s thrilling scope and universality. Perfect? No, but a highly satisfying and truly memorable experience.

****1