Renowned conductor Leonard Slatkin returns for rousing, nature-inspired program

It’s been more than a decade since Leonard Slatkin has last performed with the National Repertory Orchestra, but for 2024, the famed conductor is truly etching his mark, opening the Summer Music Festival season on June 22.

Guest conducting for major orchestras around the world, Slatkin is also an author, composer, educator, Music Director Laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Directeur Musical Honoraire of the Orchestre National de Lyon, Conductor Laureate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria and Artistic Consultant for the Las Vegas Philharmonic. He has won six Grammy awards and received 35 nominations.

“I spend a little more of my time doing educational activities now that I’m not a musical director,” Slatkin says. “We reach a point in a career where we give back, not just performing but helping grow institutions fiscally. The NRO has been an integral part of that. So many people who have participated have gone on and been successful because the NRO gives them entré to so much of what they experience when they enter the professional world.”

The symphonic world will arrive in thunderous fashion for the NRO’s class of 2024 when they perform under Slatkin’s lead on Opening Night on June 22.

Showcasing the season’s “Elements of Nature” theme, the performance begins with Bohemian composer Bedřich Smetana’s tour de force, Vltava: The Moldau, which pays tribute to the iconic Vltava River that flows through Prague and is the most famous of Smetana’s symphonic poems written about his homeland during the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1874.

“He was talking about the human experience, not just observing the river, but being swept up in it,” says NRO Music Director Michael Stern. “The music gets quiet and slows down just a little bit. It’s so touching and reinforces the idea that music can be descriptive in how it evokes a feeling.”

For Slatkin, that feeling includes a measure of nostalgia.

“With Vltava, you have a work that’s immensely popular, but one you don’t hear quite so much,” Slatkin says. “It’s of personal significance, because one of my two principal conducting teachers was Czech. He’d talk to me about his roots in Smetana and Dvořák. I’ve grown particularly fond of the music of Bohemia.”

After Vltava builds to a tumbling, moving crescendo, Opening Night continues with Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály’s Variations on a Hungarian Folksong (The Peacock) and English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.

“This piece by Kodály, whose name has disappeared off stage, is an unquestionable masterpiece based on a Hungarian folk song, manipulating a simple tune into something more and more complex. I don’t know why this piece isn’t played more often. I’ve known it since I was a child,” Slatkin says. “We literally get back to the nature theme with Lark Ascending. This work listeners know. It’s a lovely, serene piece. As opposed to other works that have virtuosity, The Lark has an inward sense, a pastoral sound.”

Opening Night wraps up with a striding grand finale, Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

“It’s spectacular,” Slaktin says. “It’s orchestrated so well. It shows off the soloists and is tremendously fun to play.”

Opening Night: Slatkin Returns is 6 p.m. June 22 at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. Adult tickets are $20-$50 and for children 17 years and younger, $5.

Photo: By Nico Rodamel.