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The National Symphony, With Strings That Sing

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page C01

There are times when one suspects that Washington is addicted to standing ovations -- that the reflexive politesse inevitably awarded long, gassy, platitudinous speeches elsewhere in our city has been carried over to the performing arts as well. Therefore, it is a pleasure to report that the three standing ovations the National Symphony Orchestra elicited last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall all seemed genuine and heartfelt.

Only the opening work -- Brahms's "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" -- was received tepidly. And rightly so, for it didn't sound as though music director Leonard Slatkin had had the time to rehearse it as fully as one might have hoped. Too bad, for the piece is a natural for Slatkin -- proper yet impassioned, a mixture of classical form and romantic fancy, built on one of the greatest tunes in the repertory (a theme, however, that does not seem to have been by Haydn at all). Only portions of the "Variations" sounded fully settled in, most notably the concluding Passacaglia, which glistened and strutted nobly; the rest of the piece was dismayingly sloppy around the edges.

Cellist David Hardy gave a scintillating performance of Henri Dutilleux's "Tout un monde lointain..." (Kennedy Center)

I found the performance of Mozart's "Sinfonia Concertante" for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K. 364, easier to admire than to love. The artistry was not to be faulted -- especially the long, luscious, intertwined passages played unaccompanied by violinist Nurit Bar-Josef and violist Daniel Foster. But Bar-Josef generally seemed miscast in this piece: She played it as if it had been written by Max Bruch or some other late romantic, with throb and energy and fierce intensity and not much simplicity or sweetness. A natural sense of forward propulsion sometimes took on a certain rushing quality alien to this seraphic meditation; I found myself echoing a line from "Faust": "Stay -- you are so beautiful."

The great performance of the night was of the French composer Henri Dutilleux's "Tout un monde lointain . . . " for cello and orchestra, played by the resplendent David Hardy. It was Dutilleux's misfortune to have been born midway between the two geniuses of late-20th-century French classical music, Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez, and he has spent most of his career overshadowed by one or the other (although it must be said that the NSO has done its part for him, especially under Mstislav Rostropovich).

In any event, this work -- an ambitious and mercurial concerto in five interconnected movements written in 1970 -- proved altogether admirable. It is both ethereal and substantial, filled with tone clusters and sound effects yet wrenchingly lyrical, a work of high, abstracted modernism that is nevertheless brimming with emotional content. Slatkin has always possessed a near-genius for imparting contemporary works so that the essence of a piece, at least, comes over to an audience in a first hearing, and he did not disappoint last night. The expressive clarity that Slatkin and Hardy brought to the music at no point diminished the cloudy mystery Dutilleux wrote into it. This was some of the NSO's best playing of the year.

Ravel's Suite No. 2 from the ballet "Daphnis and Chloe" closed the program and gave further proof of the orchestra's brilliance, suppleness and style. Ravel is nothing if not gorgeous, and gorgeous this was -- lush, caloric, marvelously frothy and abundant music-making.

The concert will be repeated this afternoon at 1:30 and tomorrow night at 8.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company