Years Have Been Kind to Former Prodigy

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 24, 2006

Maturity has been kind to onetime violin prodigy Midori. Still in control of the dazzling technique that made her a presence on concert stages in her early teens, the 34-year-old artist has gained an interpretive depth to match that virtuosity. Midori now is more musician than youthful spectacle, a well-rounded artist capable of saying something about music's underlying emotion.

Last night at the Kennedy Center, this superstar soloist gave a commanding performance with the National Symphony Orchestra under Music Director Leonard Slatkin. There was much to admire in Midori's approach to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, which was featured along with a world premiere and some orchestral showpieces.

Tchaikovsky wrote his 1878 concerto in Switzerland while recovering from a nervous breakdown, and Midori played the work with sobriety and lyricism that suggested sunny openness and gratitude for a recovery. The soloist released golden spindles of sound in the initial movement, bringing an ethereal tone in the upper registers and a burnished richness to the deeper reaches.

The second movement, Adagio, was highly expressive, naturally unfolding from its initial weeping themes. Like the greatest of divas in an opera house, Midori floated the quietest and purest of phrases to the upper reaches of the Concert Hall. The finale was a blaze of energy, laced with compact curlicue figures and zesty rhythms.

Slatkin and the NSO generally provided sensitive accompaniment that matched Midori's poetry. While one sometimes wished for more edge-of-the-seat playing and overall definition from the ensemble, the orchestra and soloist held a sympathetic bond throughout.

The evening kicked off with a sprightly reading of Mozart's "Prague" Symphony No. 38 in D, K. 504. Slatkin has the keen ability to pull and stretch music to highlight particularly beautiful elements, and the performance began with a smartly darkened opening section that suddenly pivoted and thrust toward rollicking melodies.

From Mozartean charm, the NSO skillfully moved into a more contemporary idiom with the world premiere of its newest commission, Joseph Schwantner's "Morning's Embrace." Though meant to evoke natural grandeur, the "embrace" of the title could just as easily refer to indirect musical influences.

Driving rhythms tied the work to minimalism, while unison string writing and delicate timbres, respectively, called to mind the spiritualist Olivier Messiaen and colorist Claude Debussy. Yet the orchestra played with a precision and acuity that made this beguiling work sound unique and original.

The NSO also gave a resounding account of Paul Hindemith's Concert Music for Brass and Strings, Op. 50. The warm ensemble of the NSO strings continually played against the forceful brass, which displayed polish and dexterity. The brass tends to provide a kind of musical punctuation or to fill in the overall sound. But in the NSO's capable hands, the section showed itself as expressive as the rhapsodic strings.

Midori and the gleaming NSO brass pitch in again tonight and tomorrow evening at 8, when the program repeats.

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