It was nice to have Leonard Slatkin in town, if only for a single concert with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night.
The eminent, if (in some stubborn corners) under-valued, conductor has done terrific work as music director of the Detroit Symphony for nearly a decade. Like the city where it is based, that orchestra was counted out a few times, but always bounced back. Slatkin has played a significant role in its regrowth.
His long, varied career also included a stint at the helm of the National Symphony, which yielded some hearty music-making and very imaginative programming (I still recall fondly his cool mini-fest of Mahler's arrangements of Beethoven symphonies).
Throughout a meaty concert, there was no mistaking the rapport Slatkin had with the Peabody students, who seemed keenly attuned to his firm, unshowy beat and expressive phrase-molding. Technical unevenness here and there, mostly early in the evening, proved a minor matter.
Last fall, Marin Alsop conducted this ensemble in a memorable account of the incendiary Second Symphony by Aaron Jay Kernis, which was recorded for future release on Naxos. Saturday's concert contained another Kernis work that was also recorded — the Flute Concerto from 2015, written for and dedicated to flutist Marina Piccinini, one of Peabody's excellent faculty artists.
In four action-packed movements, the concerto shifts in mood between clouded and lighthearted, muscular and tender, assertive and wistful.
The flute is both protagonist and commentator in this eclectic drama, which ends with a nod to Jethro Tull (the movement is titled "Taran-Tulla") that generates a manic, jazzy edge, only to dissipate in a questioning wisp.
In addition to the brilliant, prismatic writing for the flute, Kernis provides a multilayered orchestral fabric that includes, to delectable effect, a mandolin.
Piccinini, who performed the concerto's premiere last year with Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony, met the work's thorny technical demands on this occasion with her usual aplomb. Slatkin provided supple partnering and drew a vivid response from the orchestra.
Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter" Overture opened the concert, neatly timed for Western Easter Eve. The piece tends to meander and repeat itself, shortcomings balanced by rich melodies and irresistible orchestration. The performance could have been tauter, but it finished up with an effective flourish.
To cap the evening, Slatkin led the Peabody Symphony in a terrific account of Elgar's Enigma Variations.
The conductor tapped into the poignant undercurrent in the piece, sculpting the "Enigma" theme with particular care and giving extra breadth to the most lyrical and poetic variations. When it came to the work's humorous and bold elements, Slatkin provided equally telling touches.
The orchestra sounded impressive throughout. The strings maintained quite a lustrous sheen, producing extra warmth for the sixth and twelfth variations, not to mention the ninth, the famous "Nimrod." The woodwinds were in colorful form, the percussion rock solid (the timpanist, in particular, excelled).
In the finale, where Elgar ascends peak after expressive peak, Slatkin provided masterful pacing and attention to dynamic shading so that the cumulative effect proved truly exhilarating.
The conductor stopped the hearty ovation to say a few, well-chosen words to the audience about the value of classical music, the bonds it can create, and the talent of the ardent students onstage. He urged people to "be vocal," to "let everyone know how much music is touching you."
For my part, I'd like to urge Peabody to bring Slatkin back before too long.