With Friends Like These, the NSO Soars

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 26, 2005

The National Symphony Orchestra infused a heavy dose of glamour and glitz into its Ball Concert Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center. The gala officially opened the 75th anniversary season of the ensemble, which gets better every year and continually knocks at the doors of the nation's most elite orchestras.

Dressed in tuxes and gowns, the musicians and patrons celebrated the musical and financial health of the ensemble, especially the recently announced $10 million donation from Roger and Vicki Sant. Indeed, the NSO spared no expense or detail for its core supporters, inviting three of the world's most acclaimed artists, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax.

With Music Director Leonard Slatkin at the podium, the NSO moved beautifully through a varied program that suited the festive occasion and stayed away from anything too saccharine or deeply profound; this music stuck to the sweet spot of grandeur, motion and verve.

Together, the three A-list guests spurred the orchestra, Slatkin and one another to their best in a sizzling account of Beethoven's Concerto in C for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 56. Injecting trademark purity of tone, warmth of ensemble and sense of repartee, the soloists traded around an alternately stately and vigorous theme in the Triple Concerto's first movement. There was a chamber music-like intimacy in the melodic second movement, leading right into the exuberant finale, which played up many of Beethoven's stunning effects. An encore of the slow movement of Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49, was lyrical, tender and thoroughly absorbing.

Former secretary of state Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, were the dramatic narrators in the NSO's strong reading of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." It is a testament to how Copland's idiom has defined the American sound that the work's big-breathed brass and woodwind tunes conjured up the documentary movie image of a low-level flight over a windswept field of grain.

On its own, the orchestra showed its skill and flexibility in contemporary music with a snazzy account of Roberto Sierra's "Fandangos," one the most successful works the NSO has commissioned. Building on Latin-inspired rhythms, the orchestra took the music through dreamlike, grotesque and colorfully cacophonous episodes. The zest of the orchestra's playing was matched only in Ravel's Suite No. 2 from "Daphnis et Chloe," which included a wonderful solo from flute principal Toshiko Kohno.

Bracketing the evening were well-crafted and energetic accounts of Carl Maria von Weber's Overture to "Der Freischutz" and the world premiere of Rob Mathes's re-orchestrated fantasia on "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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