NSO Blossoms With Kurt Masur And Beethoven

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

The Kennedy Center has done something wonderful this year for the National Symphony Orchestra -- and, by extension, for all music lovers in Washington. Never before have so many distinguished guest conductors been invited to appear in a single season. A return visit from Lorin Maazel and the first-ever NSO performances by Christoph von Dohnanyi and Kurt Masur have offered proof positive that this orchestra can perform magnificently -- with brilliance, urgency, accuracy and soul -- when the right director is on the podium.

Last night Masur led an all-Beethoven program that included three of the most famous pieces in the repertory -- the "Leonore" Overture No. 3 and the First and Seventh symphonies. Yet there was not a hackneyed moment: Masur's fleet tempos, irresistible rhythmic dynamism and unquestionable authority combined with unusually lush, lithe and eager playing from the orchestra made this one of the best evenings of the year.

Anybody who went to symphony concerts in New York in the early 1990s is likely to think fondly of Masur. He took the helm of the New York Philharmonic after 14 interminable years of sloppy showboating from Zubin Mehta, when the ensemble was probably in the worst shape it had been for half a century, and quickly turned it into a serious orchestra once again.

Today's NSO is in much better shape than the New York Philharmonic was in 1992. And yet each encounter with these master conductors seems a learning experience for the musicians. It's not that the players need remedial "lessons" -- not at all. But I do think they need an occasional reminder of just how good they can be. A week with a Dohnanyi or a Masur improves morale, provides a tough "full-body" workout (the NSO rarely plays as softly or as loudly as it did in the third movement of Symphony No. 7) and inspires the musicians toward greater things.

In Masur's hands, the First Symphony sounded as though it might have been written by Haydn; it was hearty, intelligent, classically proportioned yet imbued with a certain bumptious quality that only adds to its charm. Masur's stern, economical and (to be blunt) rather dour podium manner somehow translates into musicmaking of great warmth and variety. And there is an unbroken sense of forward motion to his interpretations, each phrase slicing through to the next, that reminds me of the best recordings of Arturo Toscanini. The Symphony No. 7 was nothing less than thrilling.

If you want to hear Masur's Beethoven (and you should), try to make it to the matinee this afternoon at 1:30, for tomorrow night's program is almost sold out. If the NSO can find a full-time director who inspires performances such as the ones the orchestra has played for Masur and, in February, for Dohnanyi, Washington could become a musical capital as well as a political one.

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