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NSO and Pianist Ohlsson, Throwing Bolts of Lightning

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 17, 2006

In a couple of weeks, the National Symphony Orchestra will kick off an East Coast tour that includes a set of concerts at Carnegie Hall, the country's paramount temple to classical music. There, the NSO will be directly measured against some of the world's great ensembles, which flow through the historic hall like water. Time, then, for the NSO to get into tip-top shape and work out any kinks in its sound.

Last evening at the Kennedy Center, the orchestra showed itself to be in fine form.

Musical Director Leonard Slatkin led a shapely concert that balanced formal grandeur with colorful details. The orchestra displayed a richly blended sound, along with some polished solos from the ensemble's principals. The program leaned toward the conservative side, with few astringent moments for listeners who prefer a leaner, more pungent style. Yet there was much to admire in the way the musicians phrased the music and brought out its color.

The most important tour workout came with a driving account of Samuel Barber's "Medea's Dance of Vengeance," Op. 23a. Slatkin is one of the most ardent champions of the American composer's music, so little wonder that the NSO will open many of its concerts on the road with the power-packed piece. "Dance of Vengeance" ferociously evokes the mythological story of Medea, who murders her children to get back at her unfaithful husband, Jason, and the NSO played it with a vehemence that evoked moods of godly languor, distress and chaos.

Virtuoso pianist Garrick Ohlsson, a longtime NSO favorite, joined the orchestra in Dvorak's Piano Concerto in G Minor, Op. 33. The piece is a concert rarity because of its lackluster piano writing, but Ohlsson played a version that splices portions of a well-known revision into the original. This combination made for good musical pastiche, with Ohlsson finding a more measured and transparent sound.

In the outer movements, passages of tender lyricism contrasted with overarching drama as Ohlsson held a beautiful tone throughout all the flourishes and grand outbursts. His playing had proportion and dynamic control, and accompanying figures never obscured a more prominent, singing theme. Ohlsson can also hurl lightning bolts with the best of them, and the orchestra never covered his thunderous playing in the climaxes.

Yet, it was the second movement that made the strongest case for bringing the concerto into repertory status. The pastoral beauty of this gorgeous music is rivaled only by the famous Largo from the composer's overplayed Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, "From the New World." Orchestra and soloist delicately passed around a nostalgic and noble melody that grew warmly from the horn, violins and woodwinds.

The NSO closed the evening with an articulate if somewhat leaden account of Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 97. Slow tempos and excessive rubato sacrificed the sense of ecstatic glee that runs through much of the five-movement work. Slatkin stepped back in the finale and the orchestra let off a glorious noise, filled with bright sprays of brass, soaring strings and dancing woodwinds.

This strong program repeats tonight and tomorrow evening.

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