National Symphony Orchestra shines in quiet moments at Wolf Trap


Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. (Decca/Kasskara)
July 20

The National Symphony Orchestra’s summer season at Wolf Trap includes a lot of fluff, quite appropriately. Friday night’s concert in the Filene Center was an exception, featuring three pieces that the group might perform in subscription concerts at the Kennedy Center. In fact, the last time the NSO played two of these pieces, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, was as recent as the spring of 2013.

Little matter, since one does not really expect to be surprised by unusual repertory at an outdoor concert in the summer. The pleasure of this sort of event is in being part of a large listening community, more casual about just about everything than people are in a concert hall. Mosquitoes buzz, sweat is cooled by the errant breeze, babies and children cry and fidget, the occasional tablet screen glows in the dark.

As a finale, the Tchaikovsky provided enough bombast for a solid conclusion, with the brass, and especially the trumpets, powering the heraldic fate theme. This is a bold work that requires bold playing, “a phantasmagoric tour through an obsession,” as composer Daniel Felsenfeld put it. The evening’s guest conductor, Andrew Litton, cut his teeth as assistant conductor with the NSO in the 1980s, and each time he returns, the musicians react to his presence on the podium with warmth.

Litton expertly paced the crescendos and accelerations of the first movement, and there were fine solos from several quarters, notably the poignant oboe of Nicholas Stovall to open the second movement. In both the third and fourth movements, the orchestra and Litton did not seem to agree immediately on the choice of tempo, a battle the conductor eventually won.

Still, it was not the fireworks of the last piece that most impressed, but the quieter moments of the first two works. The overture to Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” might seem an easy choice for a lighter concert because parts of it are associated with “The Lone Ranger” or, as Litton acknowledged in his off-the-cuff banter during a set change, with Marv Newland’s short film “Bambi Meets Godzilla.” The overture opens with a soft section for cello solo, though, during which the melancholy sound of David Hardy’s instrument set an unexpected and delicious tone for an outdoor concert.

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet easily tamed the daunting passages in the outer movements of the Ravel concerto, in dialogue with a few birds inspired by the more twittering parts. The piece might seem too delicate for this cavernous venue, with its barely heard harp passages, but again in the slow movement, Thibaudet’s whispered phrases had the vast audience eating out of his hand. For a short time, a near-total silence descended like a benediction, all too rare in an age of constant distractions.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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