The NSO Brings Out The Big Guns

Saturday, July 9, 2005

Rain couldn't keep the audience away from Wolf Trap Thursday, especially when "Russian Bells and Cannons" beckoned. The National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Emil de Cou's all Tchaikovsky program featured two of the classical world's greatest crowd-pleasers -- the "1812" Overture and violinist Joshua Bell.

Bell holds the rare position of a classical music superstar. His playing proves that he is deserving of the title, and his performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto was no exception.

Bell projects a sense of comfort and ease, as if the famously difficult passages of the concerto are nothing to fret over. It was unfortunate that the humidity dampened both his sound and spirit, occasionally making the brilliant playing slightly soggy. It was still a masterly and passionate performance, and it bodes well for his new CD of the concerto coming out this fall.

It says something about Bell that the NSO pulled out the heavy artillery to balance the program: The U.S. Army Choir and a battery of cannons joined the orchestra for its traditional summer performance of the "1812" Overture.

It's really just the last 45 seconds of the Overture that everyone is waiting for, with its famous triumphal theme and blasting cannons. It was appropriately grandiose, but the artillery did little more for me than almost cause a coronary. Selections from the opera "The Maid of Orleans" touched my heart in a more pleasant way.

The lesser known piece was poignant in its contrast between the innocence of a young Joan of Arc and the brutality of her later battles, and the solo by assistant principal flute Thomas Robertello was particularly touching. The piece still fit into the militaristic theme of the evening, but it was a welcome relief from the constant aggression of the "1812" Overture and "Slavonic March."

Tchaikovsky may have his share of splashy spectaculars, but his work is more than just special effects -- it is the passion, not the cannons, that makes him so beloved.

-- Claire Marie Blaustein

© 2005 The Washington Post Company