Slatkin, Detroit Symphony make impressive stand at Arsht Center

By Lawrence Budmen

Leonard Slatkin conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Friday night at the Arsht Center in Miami.

Leonard Slatkin conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Friday night at the Arsht Center in Miami.

Over the past decade, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has endured financial problems, labor strife, periods of artistic instability and, most recently, its home city’s financial ruin and bankruptcy. Against the odds, the ensemble has survived and sounded in great form on Friday night at the Arsht Center, this Miami concert part of an eight-day Florida tour.

Leonard Slatkin, the orchestra’s music director, has had considerable success leading Midwestern ensembles. His lengthy tenure with the St. Louis Symphony rose that orchestra’s artistic profile and produced numerous award winning recordings. Likewise regular guest conducting stints with the Chicago Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra were artistically productive. Judging by Friday’s performance, Slatkin and Detroit seem like a similarly fine partnership.

Aaron Copland’s Three Latin American Sketches proved a lively and attractive opener. Although stylistically similar to his El Salon Mexico and Danzon Cubano, the three-movement suite, composed between 1959 and 1972, is more astringent and rhythmically complex. “Estribillio” impressively displayed the ensemble’s large corporate sound, the brass strongly emphatic and strings polished and unified. The haunting trumpet solo of “Paisaje Mexicano” recalled Copland’s Quiet City. Slatkin has long been a Copland specialist, and his brisk tempo captured the syncopated thrust of “Danza de Jalisco.” The orchestra’s precision and rounded sonority place it above the regional level.

Olga Kern

Olga Kern

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was more notable for Slatkin’s fine pointing of instrumental detail than pianist Olga Kern’s matter-of-fact rendering of the solo part. The luster of the Detroit strings and strong wind solos alertly propelled Rachmaninoff’s plush orchestral writing. A glamorous stage presence, Kern emphasized speed and percussive force, her tone often metallic. A few slips aside, she managed the technical demands of Rachmaninoff’s tour de force capably. Kern’s best moments came with the large scale romantic gestures of the famous 18th variation and intense rhythmic thrust and clean passage work of the 19th variation. After a wild dash in the coda, she slowed down the final phrase, exaggerating Rachmaninoff’s surprise quiet ending.

As an encore, Kern played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor which she dedicated to her father and here she was in her element. She delicately traced the arpeggiated melodic line, her touch light and fleet. Unlike her performance of the rhapsody, here she drew wonderfully varied tonal hues from the keyboard.

Slatkin’s reading of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 was solid and well controlled if seldom revelatory. Gleaming string tone and a nicely flowing line propelled a straightforward opening movement. A few wind slips may have been due to tour fatigue. Slatkin managed the tempo changes in the Andante moderato organically, the music never turning episodic.  Fine balancing and transparent dynamic contrast distinguished a lively Allegro giocoso, Slatkin avoiding the temptation of many conductors to play the movement in an over-agitated manner and he sustained tension in the final passacaglia impressively.

As he did on earlier tour stops, Slatkin asked the audience to turn on their cell phones during the encore, take a picture of the orchestra and post it on their favorite social media site. While this detracted from a lovely string excerpt from William Walton’s score for the Laurence Olivier film of Henry V, it made the tech-savvy listeners happy and gave them an opportunity to snap a memento without disrupting the concert.

The Arsht Center Classical series continues 8 p.m. March 15 with Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields playing works by Bach, Beethoven, Vaughn Williams and Schubert. 305-949-6722;

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Sat Mar 1, 2014
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