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Zinman & Serkin Bring Out the Best in the NSO

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page C07

You may not be able to define musicianship but you know it when you hear it, and one could get more than a flavor of the elusive concept at the National Symphony Orchestra's superb concert last night at the Kennedy Center.

Performing with the NSO were conductor David Zinman and pianist Peter Serkin, two renowned and respected American performers. In a diverse program, this stellar constellation of conductor, soloist and ensemble allowed each score to emerge as a spontaneous, fresh creation.


Peter Serkin, who revealed the drama in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24, has worked with conductor David Zinman many times. (Kathy Chapman)

Zinman and Serkin, the musical director of the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich and a successful touring artist, respectively, are musicians of astonishing integrity and directness. With self-effacing restraint and elegance, they shirked willful showmanship and let the notes speak for themselves. Zinman's sense of rhythms called to mind his mentor Pierre Monteux, while Serkin's sensitive phrasing harks to the great pianists of the past century, including his father, Rudolf Serkin, and Artur Schnabel.

Zinman and Serkin have collaborated on many occasions, and their common outlook led to a powerful reading of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491. One of the composer's darkest concertos, the music traverses a somber landscape of stress, sadness and tumult. The work's brooding character stands in stark contrast to the sun-dappled opera "The Marriage of Figaro," which Mozart was simultaneously composing in 1786.

Zinman's reading brought out the dramatic underpinnings, enlivening the crystalline textures and more songful passages of the three movements. Serkin's urgent runs and declamatory chords in the opening movement responded strongly to the orchestra's thrusting themes. After a sublime slow movement, the musicians enriched the driving finale with tremendous energy. Serkin skillfully brought out the dark-hued colors of the music in the quicksilver moodiness of the finale.

A rare performance of David Diamond's "Romeo and Juliet" set the tone for the entire evening. Zinman is an ardent champion of American composers, and he showed a special affinity for Diamond, who soon will turn 90. The reading revealed this music's ability to communicate dramatic ideas clearly and energetically. Through golden ensemble and well-crafted solos, the NSO captured the sheer rapture, tension and ultimate tragedy of the Shakespearean story.

Zinman inspired the players to give everything they had in Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 63. This enormous pre-World War I piece can sound long-winded and ridiculously conservative. Yet in Zinman's hands the wide-ranging score was lucid and glowing. Zinman's Elgar marries the surging sounds of Richard Strauss with the celestial beauty of Anton Bruckner, infusing all the charm of the former and the monumental strength of the latter. The NSO responded to Zinman with such assurance that climactic outbursts felt like lightning strikes straight from the maestro's baton. The mournful second movement was beyond compare, and a weightless glow seemed to linger after the spacious finale.

It was a shame that there were empty seats in the Concert Hall. Thankfully, the program repeats tonight and tomorrow evening.


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