The National Symphony Orchestra presented an illuminating multimedia production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s fourth symphony at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Friday evening, introducing Washingtonians to a didactic performing arts experience that has been cultivating new classical music audiences nationwide.
Under the baton of guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, the NSO debuted its new initiative, “Beyond the Score.” The production is the brainchild of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s artistic programming adviser, Gerard McBurney, who has created a musical lecture series focused on 21 composers so far. In concert, it means video montages, live narration and orchestral excerpts from the respective composers’ works.
For the first half of the Shostakovich program, the NSO provided morsels of Symphony No. 4 in C Major, Op. 43, as backdrop to biographical sketches engagingly recited by narrator Nigel Boon, NSO’s artistic planning director, and actor Michael Boudewyns, whose portrayals of the shy composer and his oppressed compatriots resonated, despite some microphone glitches. The symphony itself became a ready-made soundtrack for the black-and-white images depicting Soviet industrial growth, Stalin’s rise and the people’s plight.
After intermission, the NSO gave the hour-long symphony an authoritative and athletic concert performance. Petrenko emphasized the score’s drama and lyricism in his unique way — his arms hammering like those of a blacksmith, his left hand floating like a butterfly, fingers fluttering in time. The musicians responded in kind, with every note and phrase meticulously crafted. Sometimes it seemed they were leading the young conductor with their brawny sounds, so deliberate, unrelenting and yet free of the emotional frenzy that could have overpowered the score.
Judging by the cheers for the orchestra and its soloists during two curtain calls, the production successfully reached the iPad generation and seasoned listeners alike, which bodes well for the NSO’s treatment of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony in April.
Jean is a freelance writer.