NSO's Lively Previews Of Coming Attractions

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 1, 2006

Record companies used to assemble sampler discs, to be given away or sold for very little, as aural advertisements for their latest releases. I remember one from Angel Records, issued early in the stereo era, that began with a two-minute fragment from Saint-Saens's "Organ" Symphony, then segued immediately into the finale of the Bach-Vivaldi Concerto for Four Harpsichords and then into the tenor-baritone duet from Bizet's "Pearl Fishers." What did these works (and the other dozen or so snippets on the album) have to do with one another? Well, not much, aside from the fact that they were all available from Angel Records -- and yet their collective effect on a curious child was catalytic, and pretty soon I had investigated almost every composition on the album. Rarely was 99 cents better spent.

The National Symphony Orchestra tried something of this sort Thursday afternoon, when it presented a free "2006-2007 Preview Concert" at the Kennedy Center. NSO Associate Conductor Emil de Cou led the orchestra through a number of compositions on the schedule for next season: two excerpts from Shostakovich; the opening of Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe" Suite No. 2; the finale from Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique"; and compositions by Antonin Dvorak, Serge Prokofiev, Franz Josef Haydn, Gustav Mahler and even that master of irresistible American musical gadgetry, Leroy Anderson ("The Typewriter").

A large, informal crowd was on hand -- children, parents, after-work Washingtonians with an hour to kill before dinner, tourists on their first visit to the Kennedy Center -- and the music was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm. In the lobby were tables offering detailed information on the classical subscription series available for next season, and a NSO spokeswoman said staffers fielded "numerous questions" on the various pieces that were played.

De Cou, who introduced most of the selections from the stage, called the evening a "symphonic infomercial." Not bad -- and neither was the playing. I was struck once again by the power and majesty of the NSO brass, as they boomed brilliantly through the Berlioz work and the Shostakovich "Festive" Overture, which, if it hadn't been written to celebrate ever-so-slightly post-Stalinist Russia, would fit handily onto a July Fourth program. The tiny but profoundly agitated Scherzo from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 is said to be a musical portrait of Stalin himself; few four-minute pieces are so resolutely disturbing (the effect is a little like that unforgettably ominous yellow-green color the sky turns just before tornados move in).

And yet the NSO could not have been much more elegant and gossamer than it was in the opening of "Daphnis et Chloe." De Cou proved a versatile and energetic conductor, and his remarks to the audience were informative and sometimes even funny.

This was not, perhaps, a concert for the "serious" listener -- for the person who wants to hear symphonies in their entirety and programs that have an organic beginning, middle and end. But it was flashy fun: A lot of different kinds of music were heard, the price couldn't have been better, and I'll bet this venture pays off for the NSO as the new season approaches. For more information call 202-416-8400 or visit .

© 2006 The Washington Post Company