From Many Instruments, A Wholly Glorious NSO

Director Leonard Slatkin chose masterfully crafted, rarely heard works.
Director Leonard Slatkin chose masterfully crafted, rarely heard works. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 12, 2006

The National Symphony Orchestra turned the spotlight decidedly on itself in last evening's performance at the Kennedy Center. Under the direction of Music Director Leonard Slatkin, the NSO undertook a luminous exercise in sonic deconstruction, highlighting each of the instrumental sections and later bringing them together in one explosive work. The orchestra revealed its ability to give shape and color to pure sound.

Slatkin -- whose eclectic musical tastes can range from the boring to the bizarre to the sublime -- avoided such overplayed and obvious works as Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" or Saint-Saens's "The Carnival of the Animals." Beautifully crafted yet rarely heard masterworks made this evening something at once more tasteful and exciting.

That approach played well to an audience that included many younger people from around the metropolitan area who may have been making their first forays into the Concert Hall. Showing the sensitivity of demand to price, students and young professionals snapped up $20 tickets advertised only through e-mail.

Jocular, dancing themes traded with solemn brass chorales in Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which showed the composer's thoroughgoing feel for the woodwinds and brass. The work came off less as some kind of academic study and more as a pleasing immersion in blended warmth and contrasting mood. The rendition could have been more calibrated and balanced, but the playing brimmed with energy and, at one particularly lovely moment, dreamy clarinets and flutes melded with enveloping horns.

A large string orchestra arrangement of Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat for Strings, Op. 20, worked similarly well. The reading traced the work's broad outlines, capturing the effervescent flashes of light of the original chamber version. The NSO strings went straight for the guts of the score, emboldened by the line of cellos and a pair of basses surrounding the ensemble. The playing rarely felt ponderous or inarticulate, and it was easy to excuse a few infelicities of ensemble in such a spirited reading.

Carlos Chavez's Toccata for Percussion Instruments churned with inexorable drive. Standing alone at the back of the stage, the six NSO percussionists alternately conjured strong sound blocks and glistening and diffuse hazes. Amid the relentless booms of the timpani and the rat-a-tat of the snare drum, the use of gong and chimes had a particularly sublime and otherworldly feel.

The finale, Béla Bartók's "The Miraculous Mandarin," Op. 19, careened with a crashing force that showed the composer's debt to Stravinsky, Wagner and Debussy. Each orchestra section sounded as clear and colorful as it had earlier in the program. Wonderful details popped out of the busy textures, which morphed in episodes of sultry warmth, violent conflict and ecstatic glee.

Tonight and tomorrow evening, hear repeats of the concert, Bartók and all.

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