The National Symphony Orchestra offers a winning program this week with the debut of a talented guest conductor, a world-class pianist in a sizzling rendition of the Prokofiev Concerto No. 3 and a (sometimes too) lively rendition of the Mozart No. 40 — one of the great symphonies in the canon.
Thursday night’s opening performance, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, offered many pleasures.
Conductor Cornelius Meister, now in his early 30s, has had a busy career in the opera houses as well as the concert halls of his native Germany. The NSO is the highest-level American orchestra he has yet led, but I predict a burgeoning career for him here.
He is a real conductor, working hard to convey a stream of musical ideas, and with a good understanding of how best to elicit them from the players. There is no indiscriminate flailing or posturing. He conveys clearly what he wants just ahead of time, and he seems to notice that the orchestra has a second violin section.
There are youthful excesses, too; in agitated passages, Meister is a little hard to watch, like someone wrestling with the leash of a particularly rambunctious dog. And his breakneck tempos in the last two movements of the Mozart led to blurred passagework in the strings.
But this was an auspicious debut of an artist to watch.
An artist we already know about is the Russian master Nikolai Lugansky. Each time I hear him, I’m impressed anew.
Lugansky’s understated virtuosity is very appealing; it’s all about efficiency and not histrionics. But there is marvelous detail of articulation, the sound changing instantly from liquid to icy (often different in each hand).
Meister’s training in the opera pit served him particularly well here; all the gear-shifts in the variation movement were perfectly coordinated with the soloist. Balances were not ideal, however, in the outer movements (orchestration was not one of Prokofiev’s strengths), and Lugansky refused to pound. Thus, some of the scintillating keyboard passages were lost.
It was still a dazzling performance, as the audience vociferously acknowledged.
The opener, Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” overture, is a bit of a curio. This was only the NSO’s second performance ever of the work, but the Mendelssohn certainly deserves a higher place in the repertoire. It is not a masterpiece on the level of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or “Fingal’s Cave,” but it is a tone-poem of great beauty.
Meister guided the players through the difficult opening — slow, soft attacks in the winds are always problematic — and created a palpable sense of pregnant expectancy in this unfamiliar score. Brass were solid throughout, but not overpowering. Well done.
After the fireworks of the Prokofiev, a smaller orchestra returned for the symphony. It could have been a bit anticlimactic, but Meister had a profusion of ideas throughout the work. An odd one was to omit second repeats in each of the last three movements. The symphony made for a slightly short second half anyway, and so this omission was puzzling, particularly in the Menuetto.
But the Andante was the high point of the evening, Meister drawing gentle but detailed pictures in sound.
The program will be repeated Friday night and Saturday.