The soft underbelly of Leonard Slatkin's tenure as musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra was exposed during last night's subscription concert at the Kennedy Center. Though the NSO players sounded absolutely wonderful, displaying a newfound flexibility and assurance, it felt as if the experienced and intelligent maestro wasted the ensemble's commanding technique on the evening's feature, one of the fundamentally weakest works of Richard Strauss.
Everything seemed to start out well, with a bracing account of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3. Slatkin took the ominous, sinewy opening at an extremely slow pace, which brought out some carefully crafted woodwind and string playing. This strong foundation led to some zesty main themes, which the NSO etched with golden ensemble and tone.
Cellist Han-Na Chang gave a polished performance of Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante.
The orchestra provided equally sensitive accompaniment to the graceful young cellist Han-Na Chang in a vigorous performance of Sergei Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante in E Minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 125. This extroverted 21-year-old possesses a prodigious musical talent, and it is little wonder why she is in such high demand with the world's great orchestras. Though her interpretations are still developing, there was much to admire in the polish, energy and skill of her artistry.
Chang performed the Russian composer's last published work with churning adamancy, soaring lyricism and somber elegance. After exploring the extremes of the registers, she struck up an enormous array of colors, emotions and textures in the pyrotechnic cadenza of the second movement.
Throughout this fleet account, Slatkin nicely calibrated balances and ensured that Chang's quicksilver cello was never drenched by an orchestral wash of sound.
Unfortunately, it defied imagination that the conductor would put the orchestra through so much time and energy to perform Strauss's "Symphonia Domestica," Op. 53. This 1904 work, which received its premiere in Carnegie Hall, attempts to paint a sonic picture of household bliss. To modern listeners, though, the score of more than 40 minutes paints a picture of musical sprawl. Though filled with some pleasingly lush instrumental writing, this is one of the composer's most disjointed works.
As the NSO invested its skills in this repetitive and saccharine score, one pleaded for something else. How about an account of Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration" or, much better, a concert version of one of the composer's supercharged operas, such as "Elektra"?
The score did give the opportunity to hear some distinguished playing from the orchestra. The superb principals, including concertmaster Nurit Bar-Joseph, flutist Toshiko Kohno, clarinetist Loren Kitt and oboist Rudolph Vrbsky, delivered particularly warm and shapely solos. Each section displayed remarkable ensemble, clean attack and spot-on intonation.
With playing this fine, the Strauss by no means torpedoed the whole evening. Still, it seemed that the NSO's abilities would have been better spent on other music. One looks forward to performances over the next few weeks when these confident artists return to the stronger, more transparent fare in which they excel.
The concert -- Strauss and all -- repeats tonight and tomorrow.