Tchaikovsky Gets NSO Season Off to A Rousing Start

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2006

A famous advertising campaign in the 1970s proclaimed to the world that "every body needs milk." After some spoilsport pointed out that certain people are lactose-intolerant, the slogan was blithely amended to "Milk has something for everybody."

Not everybody needs Tchaikovsky, of course (Pierre Boulez, for one, has steadfastly refused to conduct his music throughout his career). Still, it does seem that the Russian composer has something for most of us. For those who do not respond to Tchaikovsky's fanciful and opulent ballets, there is the austere and achingly poetic opera "Eugene Onegin." For those who find the later symphonies rather overblown, there are the simple, haunting songs and piano miniatures. Like Walt Whitman, Tchaikovsky is large, he contains multitudes.

Last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Roberto Minczuk led the National Symphony Orchestra in its first indoor program since early summer. With prices that ranged from $15 to $35 and an all-Tchaikovsky program, it was not surprising to find the house all but filled.

Minczuk is a protege of Kurt Masur, long the music director of the New York Philharmonic, and like Masur, he has a way with what the critic Virgil Thomson used to call "cold-climate composers." The program opened with the Polonaise from "Eugene Onegin," probably the most extroverted moment of the opera, but a perfect curtain-raiser, full of pomp and vigor. The orchestra seemed to be having a grand time, playing together again and setting the 2006-07 season into motion.

The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 starts off so splashily -- directly, dynamically, with one of the best tunes in the literature -- that the remaining half-hour can seem a study in virtuosic afterglow. (How very strange that the composer, who usually knew how to give an audience what it wants, never returns to the great, surging melody that launches the concerto!)

When it is played well, as it was last night by the young pianist Joyce Yang, it maintains the listener's attention throughout. Yang would seem to be a real find; she plays with poise, brilliance and solid muscular power that rarely seemed forced. Her work was most impressive in just those movements that need the most advocacy, and the lyricism she brought to the central Andantino Semplice was lush and sweet.

The NSO's winds and brass sounded rather patchy throughout the concerto. Not so in the evening's closing work, the Symphony No. 4, which was played with a bright ferocity. Here, Minczuk gave us a refreshingly dry-eyed interpretation, brimming with energy, involving and personal yet always objective. I can imagine some listeners, accustomed to the searing angst that, say, a Leonard Bernstein brought to this music, finding last night's performance rather cool. To this taste, it was a relief to hear Tchaikovsky played as music , rather than a sonic confessional.

The program will be repeated tonight at 7.

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