Music review: NSO makes musical visit to Prague

March 25, 2012

For a programming concept not exactly brimming with creativity, the Kennedy Center’s “Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna” has yielded impressive results.

The National Symphony Orchestra’s contributions have been large-scale, including operas by Bartok and Beethoven. On Friday night at the concert hall, music director Christoph Eschenbach segmented the NSO into smaller groups for music by two Czech giants. Two rare but compelling late pieces by Leos Janacek, a quirky non-conformist, were sandwiched between two beloved early works by Antonin Dvorak, a melody-rich keeper of the romantic tradition.

Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds, although cast in a minor key, beams with sunshine and fresh air. Too bad there wasn’t a little more breathing room, as Eschenbach sped his vibrant musicians along at urgently paced tempos. The Andante, the sole overcast movement, was blessed with luminous playing, especially from clarinetist Loren Kitt and oboist Nicholas Stovall, trading sinuous melodies and descending patterns like the pealing of bells. Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings amounted to a serviceable but dispassionate performance, hampered by a sound needing more warmth, color and bloom.

For Janacek’s music, pianist Lukas Vondracek, a 25-year-old Czech import, proved a perfect guest. He has an instinctive feel for the music, among the composer’s most fascinatingly peculiar. The Concertino for piano and wind septet, originally tied to an idea about forest animals, crackles with quick-shifting scenarios and odd personalities. It could double as a soundtrack for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The Capriccio, from 1926, was written for a war-wounded, one-armed pianist plus a septet of brass and flute. Janacek blends oom-pah beats, wistful melodies and stuttering rhythms to create an attitude of either “defiance” (a title he toyed with using) or capriciousness. NSO assistant conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl ably tapped into both, helping make this musical visit to Prague a worthy stopover.

Huizenga is a freelance writer.

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