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NATIONAL SYMPHONY FORESEES `GOLDEN ERA'

Not all the news coming out of Washington these days is bad. Just ask the National Symphony Orchestra.

Last March the NSO announced the appointment of Leonard Slatkin, since 1979 music director of the St. Louis Symphony, as its next music director, succeeding Mstislav Rostropovich. And his first concerts with the orchestra in that role last weekend at the Kennedy Center suggest the change is a welcome one - and not just for the musicians."Finally, this orchestra will have its golden era," a member of the horn section was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. "A breath of fresh air" was how Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala described the new conductor, and part way through the Saturday, Sept. 10, concert - the one I attended - ABC's Sam Donaldson was heard to say of Slatkin, "He's really a live wire."

Actually, I've seen live-er wires than Slatkin on the podium (though this was the first time I can recall having seen a conductor lead part of a program with a baton - the Copland Third Symphony - and the other part without). But I've never heard one get a better sound out of this orchestra.

Never the most refined band in the land, the National Symphony under Rostropovich usually seemed longer on passion than precision per se - largely an extension of the conductor himself.

Not so with Slatkin. Oh, the brass could still be a bit more cleanly focused, especially given the new prominence they have been accorded via risers. But in both the opening rendition of the national anthem (with Slatkin leading the audience as vigorously as he did the orchestra) and the Overture to Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," everyone seemed pretty much on his or her toes, even in the softer pages.

In view of the brashness and thrust of the rest, that may not be what impressed the audience the most. But that same control was even more evident in the work that followed, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, which profited from a generally taut, classically molded accompaniment. Here, though, the main attraction was the soloist, Chinese-parented, Japanese-born, Juilliard-trained Helen Huang.

Did I mention she is only 11? I don't think you'd have guessed it from listening to her performance, which, except for a somewhat prosaic account of the slow movement, revealed a remarkably mature conception of this early masterpiece.

Even there, one admired the loving detail and almost Mozartean shaping of phrases, something also true of the first movement, with its sprightly runs and pearly legato. Nor did things bog down in the spark-filled third movement, where, despite the rapid tempo, she and the orchestra stayed neck and neck right to the finish line.

The high point of this season-opener, however, was arguably the Copland Third, a piece Slatkin conducts as well as anyone around.

Again, the brass might have been better focused, something perhaps accentuated by the hall (where reportedly the players often have a hard time hearing one another). But string sound was more disciplined than I remember hearing in the past, and the sometimes raw-toned winds lent an almost Prokofievian edge to the steelier stuff.

Of which there is a fair amount in this magnificent opus, from the thunderous climaxes of the opening movement, here propelled with a sure sense of direction, to the resounding statement of the "Fanfare for the Common Man" that launches the similarly heroic finale. In between came the tricky motor rhythms of the second movement, with its warmly idiomatic center, and the deliberately icy strings and vigorous central dance of the third.

Slatkin, who does not take over fully until 1996-97 (until then he bears the title "music director designate") says he hopes to make the National "the leading orchestra for the music of this country," a flagship of sorts. If so, this wasn't a bad launch. And if it wasn't as smoothly navigated as his St. Louis recording - well, as was the case there, give the captain time.