Conductor Hugh Wolff and NSO turn unfamiliar work into comfortable sound

Orchestras can’t win sometimes: If they do pieces audiences love, they get accused of conservatism, but if they do a program of unfamiliar work, they may have trouble selling tickets. Thursday night’s National Symphony Orchestra program, however, was a textbook case of how to make the unfamiliar feel comfortable, appealing and even familiar.

Granted, Chopin’s second piano concerto (which was actually written first) is hardly an unfamiliar work, and with Emanuel Ax, the orchestra had one of the most beloved of piano soloists. But the two pieces that framed this stoutly played work — “Rivering Waters,” by Stephen Albert, written in 1983-84, and Dvorak’s Fifth Symphony — were far from audience favorites. Let me revise that: They were far from audience favorites before the performance. But both proved to offer a lot to win people over.

An underlying tacit presence was the late Mstislav Rostropovich, the NSO’s erstwhile and still-beloved music director. The Albert piece was excerpted from a symphony originally commissioned, premiered and recorded by the NSO. And the Dvorak was last played here under Rostropovich in 1979, the same year that Hugh Wolff, who led the concert, began with the NSO as an associate conductor.

Wolff, now 59, has always seemed oddly underrated in the conducting world; having given up a post with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra to move back to the States, he teaches conducting at the New England Conservatory. Surely he should have an orchestra of his own somewhere. He is quietly competent and very at home with the NSO musicians and got generally good results, apart from a lackluster start to the concerto — which was hardly the evening’s biggest challenge.

Far more difficult was the Albert piece (the original symphony’s first and fourth movements), a big, sweet, fragmented, highly textured piece that takes a lot of coordinating to come off. And it came off very well. The work is an interesting relic of a period when some composers were breaking free of the stylistic dictates of preceding years and letting themselves luxuriate in tonality — something hard to remember today, when tonal music proliferates and the snobbery lines regarding contemporary music run less between serialism and melody than between classical tradition and so-called pop. “RiverRun,” the original symphony, is a response to Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” and its rich sweetness, studded with little shards of melody and tonal effects, is a pretty fine musical translation of the multilingual, multireferenced pastiche of Joyce’s prose. Since Albert died in a car accident at 51, there’s no way to know how his style might have developed into the 21st century, but this chance to hear a significant work was welcome.


Hugh Wolff (Frank Hulsbroehmer)

And the Dvorak Fifth Symphony turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable. Dvorak is a sunny, amiable and superbly competent composer whose music is among the least neurotic products of the classical canon, and if this symphony isn’t played more, it’s perhaps because it verges on being too easy to listen to. I often complain that musicians these days don’t often enough sound like they’re having fun, but everyone, including the composer, sounded like they were having a lot of fun in the Scherzo.

If these pieces served as a frame for the Chopin, the Chopin served as a frame for Ax, who exuded the same cheerful urbanity as the rest of the evening and exhibited supreme, effortless competence to an even higher degree. There was, perhaps, a touch of workmanship to the whole evening, a sense of the craftsman relishing a good job well done rather than the artist of fiction tearing his hair in the agonies of creation. The craftsman is the more realistic musician: Ax played beautifully and was rewarded with gales of applause from an audibly contented audience.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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