Oliver Knussen takes risks with National Symphony Orchestra

November 3, 2011

When musicians venture outside their comfort zone, the risk-taking can be thrilling. The same is true for audiences.

After British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen’s last appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra — as part of an intense CrossCurrents festival in 2009 — it was no surprise that his latest appearance at the podium of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall brought challenges as well as rewards. On Thursday night, the NSO tackled three of the four pieces on this somewhat daunting program for the first time in its history — with not quite even results.

The concert opened with “Wanderlust,” a three-movement narrative escapade by Nevada-born Sean Shepherd that premiered in 2009. Shepherd splashes sound at a large orchestral canvas, with a surfeit of percussion, to evoke desert howls or the Brittenesque surge of the ocean.

The musical style was bewilderingly complex, but tinges of cinematic cool or Bernstein-like Latin rhythms kept the ear engaged. Harsh mallet strikes on clanging metal and an earth-shattering wail of brass gave a steely opening to the third movement, an expression of the composer’s fascination with Frank Gehry’s architecture for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

It is not hard to see why Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Reveil des oiseaux” had not been programmed before this week. A less successful attempt by the composer to make something of his fascination with birdsong, it is much more stark and barren in texture than, for example, the composer’s “Oiseaux exotiques.”

The piano solo, played with grim efficiency by Peter Serkin, has many long cadenzas, and the plethora of repeated notes and jagged leaps did not sit comfortably in his fingers. Most of the orchestral part is a series of small interactions with individual instruments, all quoting Messiaen’s atonal approximation of the birds he adored, until the whole forest of avian denizens finally came alive.

Serkin had an overly similar, sharp-fingered approach to another piece for piano soloist and orchestra: George Benjamin’s “Duet” from 2008. Benjamin removed the violins from the orchestra, using as many percussive effects as possible from the remaining instruments to create a vivid orchestration. Near the opening of the piece, a tangolike pulse introduced in the double basses, harp and timpani, formed a sort of rhythm section for the piano solo. Foghorn blasts of trombone and broad spasms of dissonance added elements of disorder. Again at the piano, Serkin was a little dry, playing the notes capably but not finding a way to tell a compelling story.

The most conventional piece was saved for last: the third suite of music that Igor Stravinsky assembled from his groundbreaking, sensuous score for the ballet “The Firebird.” Knussen, whose simple gestures helped keep the multifarious layers of the more recent pieces in some kind of order, drove many of the tempi in the Stravinsky a little too fast, robbing the introduction of gloom and making the infernal dance harried and uneven.

It was Knussen’s bad luck to follow Lorin Maazel in the guest-conductor rotation. The lack of unity among the players, not least because of the demands of so much unfamiliar music, showed again how much difference a veteran conductor can make.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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