After a harrowing National Symphony Orchestra concert Friday night at the Kennedy Center, when venerable guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos took ill during the final number and was able to finish the concert only because a musician brought him a chair mid-performance, the orchestra called upon its assistant conductor, Ankush Kumar Bahl, to lead the final performance on Saturday.
Bahl, now in his third season with the NSO, was prepared, as studying the scores and attending rehearsals for just such an eventuality is a big part of his job, and the musicians, having done the program twice, were able to react to the inevitable differences with professionalism.
The music itself was not especially challenging, and no one hearing the concert cold would have had any reason to think that Bahl had not been leading the orchestra all week. The star of the evening remained the young Russian piano virtuoso Daniil Trifonov, but he too enfolded the unfamiliar conductor’s contribution flawlessly into his incandescent performance. (His encore was a scherzo he composed.)
The Cinderella story is a familiar trope in the performing arts world. Leonard Bernstein’s surprise 1943 debut with the New York Philharmonic (when he, like Bahl, was its assistant, and the scheduled conductor took ill) put the brilliant young talent permanently on the cultural map. Nothing of the sort happened here; Bahl did what he was supposed to do, did it competently, and the orchestra responded with a solid performance.
The audience gave him a standing ovation at the close, though I have never attended or taken part in a performance of Respighi’s volcanic “Pines of Rome” that did not receive a standing ovation. But the system worked and the show went on.
Bahl improved (in my view) on some of the sedate tempos Frühbeck took in several of the pieces, pushing things along a little. And since I called them out in my review of Thursday’s performance, I hasten to note that the horns played vastly better in the opening of the Respighi on Saturday. Notwithstanding, there was still a purposefulness and tension that the elder maestro imparted in Debussy’s “Fêtes” and Respighi’s “Pines near a Catacomb,” among other sections, that were missing with the younger conductor.
Bahl is still clearly in an apprentice stage of his career. This was his first full subscription-program performance, and he obviously was not in a position to give his musical personality full and free rein. But he has earned the chance to do so in the future.
Battey is a freelance writer.