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For the NSO, a Night With Fine Old Friends

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

It must be gratifying for Mstislav Rostropovich to return to Washington and behold what has become of the National Symphony Orchestra, which he served as music director from 1977 to 1994. By now, Rostropovich is a bona fide Grand Old Man and it is easier to appreciate the many attributes he brings to music -- especially when he plays his matchless cello but also, and increasingly, when he conducts.

Last night, Rostropovich led the NSO in music by three men who were his friends and who wrote music for him -- Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten and Henri Dutilleux -- and closed the program with a juicy symphony by Antonin Dvorak, a composer after his own heart.

Bernstein's "Slava! (A Political Overture)," fashioned for Rostropovich during his first season as NSO music director, is basically a cheesy knock-off of the same composer's "Candide" Overture, larded with near-jazz and half-tipsy writing for strings and brass. But "Candide" is magical and compact, whereas "Slava!" is just crass and vulgar, and the fragments of recorded political speeches thrown in toward the end do little to redeem it.

Britten's "Peter Grimes" is one of those operas that make such a shattering impression as music drama that it is always odd to hear the "Four Sea Interludes" out of context. (One might as well extract "Four Roman Moods" from "Tosca.") And yet the music is beautiful -- a sort of bright, stunning gray, paradoxical as that may sound -- and the second Interlude in particular prefigures the quasi-minimalist music of John Adams by almost half a century.

Dutilleux composed his "Correspondances" for the evening's soloist, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and for conductor Simon Rattle: The two gave the premiere in Berlin. The composer, now 90, made the trip to hear his setting of letters by, among others, Vincent van Gogh and Alexander Solzhenitsyn receive its Washington premiere, but he was said to be extremely jet-lagged and listened from Rostropovich's dressing room. It is evocative music, both lithe and languid, deftly orchestrated, and very French. Upshaw sang with her usual sweetness and, especially in the Solzhenitsyn letter, a heightened urgency. The orchestra, which has a long history with Dutilleux's music, played with authority, color and nuance.

Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G is rich fare -- a long score filled with chorales, heartfelt melodies, healthy sentiment, fanfares, graceful solos and just about anything else one would want from a 19th-century symphony. It passes very pleasantly, keeping a listener's attention throughout. Still, as usual for me with Dvorak, I come away content and grateful to have spent time in the symphony's civilized company, but not especially interested in hearing it again.

The NSO's playing was vigorous and warm throughout the evening. The musicians seemed happy to respond to Rostropovich's perpetually rudimental stick technique -- up and down and down and up -- and they gave him more music than they give to many other, more polished maestros. The brass sounded unusually fine, as did the sweet, Gypsy soulfulness of Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef's violin. The music director who ends up winning this orchestra after Leonard Slatkin departs in 2008 may have to do some "fixing up" here and there but will nevertheless have won a prize.

The concert will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8.

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