Although I’d been to Washington, D.C., at least four times before, I had never been to The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts until this last trip. But I did my best to make up for lost time, getting a sweeping grand tour of the entire facility by Kennedy Center PR chief Patricia O’Kelly and catching two very different performances. The first was a rush-hour concert featuring the cream of the crop from six different D.C.-area youth orchestras playing alongside members of the National Symphony Orchestra. The other was an afternoon family concert by the full orchestra featuring the world premiere of a work especially commissioned for the occasion, David Del Tredici’s Rip Van Winkle. Both performances were led by Leonard Slatkin, who, in his ten years as music director, has really made the National Symphony into America’s orchestra through his commitment to this nation’s composers and performers.
Being based in the nation’s capital, of course, gives the orchestra and its concert hall a slightly different local color than those in other cities. What other town can boast a venue that has reserved boxed seating for the president of the United States, seating that is technically the property of the White House and can only be entered with White House permission? Even though we’re no longer living in an era of a classical music-loving P.O.T.U.S., having that box directly across from the man on the podium creates a very unusual psychological dynamic in the hierarchy-driven world of the orchestra. But just as Leonard Slatkin can roll up his sleeves and be completely down to earth when interacting with orchestral musicians as well as students, he also doesn’t worry about the rank of anyone—politician or otherwise—who might be sitting in the audience—though Condoleezza Rice is a regular. This is probably what makes Slatkin such an ideal conversation partner for a discussion about making orchestral music meaningful in the lives of contemporary Americans!