In its own castle, DSO shows off its regal sound

Mason Bates
The Detroit News

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The simple combination that has sustained the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's reputation through decades of the fiscal thick and thin was on display Friday night: that orchestra in that hall.

The DSO may rustle up a broader fan base with its new neighborhood series scheduled to commence next month, but there are few places in the world where this band would sound as luscious as it does in Orchestra Hall. That's its sweet spot, and did it ever deliver the sugar on this occasion.

With music director Leonard Slatkin at the helm, the DSO offered a scintillating performance of Rachmaninoff's grand Third Symphony, music that seems to be second nature to the conductor and redolent with the opulent colors and virtuosic demands that always bring out this orchestra's best.

It is indeed curious that the Third Symphony has never shared the firm place in the repertoire held by Rachmaninoff's Second. While the three-movement Third does not present the long-lined lyricism of the Second, it unfolds through a kaleidoscopic progression of thematic patterns teeming with colorful detail and propulsive rhythms.

More like a series of tableaux than a narrative drama, the Third Symphony invites the sort of sensual immersion one associates with Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe." Slatkin's indulgent tempos allowed the orchestra - and the audience - to revel in the music's rich, finely wrought textures. The effect was like an Olympian contest between instrumental sections, as woodwinds and strings and brasses vied to produce flourishes of the greatest luster, subtlety and precision.

And from the work's opening burst of color, the interaction between orchestra and hall was manifest, the sound vibrant, concentrated, enveloping - altogether glorious.

Less distinctive, and less rewarding, was Slatkin's stentorian, almost martial turn through Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony. No indulgence here, but rather a forced march - especially in the opening movement - in which Slatkin seemed bent on pressing this majestic music into the mold of heroic Beethoven. One listened in vain for a singing line.

The concert opened with the brilliant novelty of Mason Bates' five-movement suite for large orchestra and "electronica" - his preferred term - called "B-Sides." A thirtysomething West Coast native now ensconced as composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bates is a skilled and imaginative hand with the conventional orchestra, whose resources he adroitly expands with computer-controlled sounds.

Sitting in with the DSO, Bates performed on an electronic drum pad and laptap in the first, third and fifth movements of "B-Sides." The second and fourth movements, unadorned by electronics, showed Bates' flair for engaging dance rhythms as well as his mastery of the orchestral palette. Effects elsewhere ranged from the sound of a sweeping broom and electronically generated drum syncopations to the recorded voices of astronauts' on America's first walk in space. It was an out-of-this-world ride, and to judge from the prolonged applause, the audience had great fun.

The concert was interrupted briefly, during the last movement of the Rachmaninoff symphony, by a commotion in the balcony. A sudden loud cry was heard, followed by a convergence of several members of the audience around the source of the sound. Slatkin stopped the performance until calm was restored, then restarted the music. At the end, when he came back on stage for a second bow, he reported that "a lady fell, but everything is fine." No further information was available at deadline for this review.