The Detroit Symphony's Return
Can they do it?
by James Leonard
The University Musical Society is always looking for a reason to celebrate. Last season it celebrated American mavericks, climaxing in three concerts with the San Francisco Symphony performing pieces few folks had heard before. Perhaps in compensation, this season it's celebrating Hill Auditorium's 100th anniversary with orchestras like the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic playing repertoire almost everybody's heard before, like Brahms' First and Tchaikovsky's Sixth.
To celebrate the Frieze Memorial Organ, the instrument around which Hill was designed, the UMS is bringing in three different organists to perform works by four different composers for organ and orchestra in January. The works range from the very well known--Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor arranged by Leopold Stokowski--to the much less known--Samuel "Adagio for Strings" Barber's Toccata Festiva, Aram "Sabre Dance" Khachaturian's Symphony No. 3--to the virtually unknown--James MacMillan's Tu es Petrus.
But while celebrating is all well and good, the key to the January 13 concert isn't the soloists or the repertoire. It's the orchestra and conductor. No matter how fine the organists or how interesting the pieces, the fact that the orchestra is the Detroit Symphony and the conductor is Leonard Slatkin is crucial to the concert's success.
With a long, brutal strike plus a close brush with bankruptcy in the past few years, the DSO has been through hell. While it dodged bankruptcy, the strike led to the loss of many players, including principals and the concertmaster. Like any orchestra, the DSO has had better and worse music directors over the years. But no matter who's waving their arms in the air, it's always been a sleek musical instrument with bright colors, tight ensemble, and a whole lot of power under the hood. Now with the loss of so many old players and the gain of so many new ones, the orchestra can't be what it was, though what it is remains unknown.
Then there's Leonard Slatkin. No doubt he's a major American conductor, but
he's a conductor with a past. He's gone from the St. Louis Symphony to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., to the DSO, and his time with each orchestra has followed the same arc from love and marriage to disillusionment and divorce. Slatkin's stock had already started slipping before the strike, and some speculated his days were numbered.
Now, however, Slatkin has something to prove: that he can bring an orchestra back from near-death to artistic and financial success. Likewise, the DSO has something to prove: that it can be one of America's great orchestras again. The question is: can they do it, or is Slatkin too old and the DSO too beat?
[Originally published in January, 2013.]