Hardly a year goes by that someone doesn't proclaim the death of classical music, but the waves of talented musicians keep on coming, providing fresh life lines. Consider Saturday evening's National Conducting Institute Concert, the culmination of a project by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center.
Out of 120 applicants, four aspiring U.S-based conductors were chosen to participate in a three-week immersion program that involved workshops, mentoring from NSO music director Leonard Slatkin, extensive rehearsals, culminating in NSO debuts at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Two of the conductors have Baltimore connections. Alexander Mickelthwate and Jason Weinberger both studied at the Peabody Conservatory. Mickelthwate, music director of the Scarsdale Youth Orchestra, was on the podium for a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra community concert in May; Weinberger was an assistant conductor for Peabody Opera and Baltimore Opera. Harry Davidson is conductor of the Duke Symphony Orchestra. Ki-Sun Sung is music director of the New York Sinfonietta.
All four had something significant to say musically with the NSO, starting with Weinberger, who received the shortest assignment, the Overture to Wagner's "Tannhauser." Although his conducting lacked the stamp of authority (the orchestra's ragged playing was one sign), and his spacious tempos needed more tension underneath, his emphasis on the music's grandeur hit home.
Davidson revealed a clean, crisp baton technique, lots of careful preparation and an engaging sense of style in Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony. He had the outer movements dancing along brightly and caught the dark-edged lyricism of the inner ones. The ensemble responded with admirable lightness and warmth.
For his part, Mickelthwate offered an assured, eloquently shaped account of Copland's Suite from "Appalachian Spring." He gave the tender passages plenty of breathing room, yet never lost the inner pulse of the score, and propelled the square dance episodes effectively. The NSO's response was mostly polished, sensitive.
Sung took on Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite with admirable poise, rhythmic vitality and expressive nuance. A tauter connection between some of the work's sections would have been welcome, but this was, on the whole, an impressive demonstration of podium skills. Sung's confidence was reflected in much of the playing by the NSO, which also purred nicely for Slatkin in Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun."