Deneve, Bringing Out the Best in the NSO

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005


The young French conductor Stephane Deneve and the National Symphony Orchestra have set up a vibrant partnership. With the exception of music director emeritus Mstislav Rostropovich in some Russian works, departing Music Director Leonard Slatkin on his best nights and Lorin Maazel on his (very) occasional visits, nobody elicits playing of such sweep, passion, color and unity from this orchestra. In October, Deneve, the musical director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, led what could have been a hackneyed program of warhorses -- Rossini's "William Tell" Overture, Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor and Respighi's "Pines of Rome" -- but made them all new and exhilarating. He also brought along an eerie and beautiful recent work by one of his countrymen: Guillaume Connesson's "Une Lueur Dans l'Age Sombre" ("A Glimmer in the Age of Darkness"), probably the best new composition the NSO has played during my 10 years in Washington.

Pianist Marilyn Nonken presented a thorny, brilliant and uncompromising program, as challenging as it was rewarding, at the Clarice Smith Center in February.

The first part of the concert was devoted to recent works by the contemporary composers Pierre Boulez, Arthur Jarvinen and Chris Dench, with the entire second half given over to the mammoth Sonata No. 2 ("Concord") by Charles Ives. No, it wasn't exactly easy listening, yet the Ives piece, in particular, has never sounded so good. Nonken stressed the sonata's lyricism, continuity and organic structure. For once it held together as a coherent work of art instead of a scattershot glossary of yesterday's experimental techniques.

The Music Center at Strathmore, handsome, ambitious and brand-new in February, is also something of a puzzler. If you sit downstairs and listen to an orchestra, you will likely be convinced it is the best hall the capital area has ever known. The lower strings, in particular, seem to emanate from the walls, the floor, the air itself. But there are also some acoustical dead spots, especially on the side balconies, and chamber music sounds even more remote than it usually does in large auditoriums (the Music Center has almost 2,000 seats). Still, there can be little doubt that the advent of the hall makes our musical life more interesting, especially now that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is playing regularly within Metro distance, giving the NSO some solid competition.


If anybody ever doubted that classical music can be just as gaseous and silly as what the pop world serves up, a presentation at MCI Center titled "Carmina Burana Monumental Opera" in March should have settled the point. Carl Orff's primal choral work, with its fiercely reiterative, irresistibly catchy melodies, was subjected to a ponderous, pseudo-psychedelic staging that could have come right out of "This Is Spinal Tap." Thirty dancers (in what we were told were 300 different costumes) rocked and writhed around a 60-foot blob in the middle of the arena that looked now like the iceberg that wrecked the Titanic, now like the machine, complete with whirling cogs, that ate Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times." According to the presenters, the evening offered 24 "magical images" telling "stories of life and death, of fortune and misfortune, becoming and fading under the continuously turning 'wheel of life.' " It was, like, heavy, man -- especially with the MCI amplification making it sound like "Carmina Burana" was being played through the world's largest cell phone.

The Kennedy Center's China Festival, with its multifarious representation of government-sanctioned art from the world's most populous nation, had its moments, but the local debut of the "all-female percussion ensemble" Red Poppy was not among them. Those China watchers who believe the country is rapidly being transformed from a communist nightmare into a capitalist one would have found considerable evidence to support their argument here. Performing in October, Red Poppy diluted what might have been a program of exuberant, high-energy drumming with a mixture of insipid Euro-pop New Age sonic mush, narrative inanities and a near-lethal dose of Las Vegas cheesiness. Surely there must be a better alternative to socialist realism than tawdry commercial trash.

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