Off to a Refreshing Start

Ivan Fischer of Hungary will be the NSO's new principal guest conductor for three years.
Ivan Fischer of Hungary will be the NSO's new principal guest conductor for three years. (Budapest Festival Orchestra)
By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 1, 2006

Hopes were high that a successful match was in the making when the National Symphony Orchestra announced last year that the Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer would become its orchestra's new principal guest conductor. Fischer, 55 and the longtime music director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, could take the NSO into the rich Central European repertoire and keep the musicmaking fresh during the search for a replacement for departing director Leonard Slatkin.

As in dating, these couplings can just as easily dissolve on contact as fly to the moon. Part of the thrill, then, of hearing Fischer and the NSO kick off his three-season tenure at the Kennedy Center last evening was experiencing the fulfillment of this expectation.

Here was musicmaking of seeming rightness, unflagging vigor and uncharacteristic clarity. Detail and precision sometimes have been missing from the orchestra's concerts in recent years but last night there was none of that wayward vagueness that can creep into Slatkin's interpretations. Even the stage arrangement was different, with the basses arranged in a line against the back wall like an enveloping curtain. Brilliantly conceived and executed, the concert heralded a musical pairing of substance and beauty.

The program was varied -- a contemporary American piece here, a Brahms symphony there -- but a suite of miniatures and single-movement works was the patent showcase. Dance-inspired works of Sibelius, Dvorak, Strauss and Kodály evolved like a resplendent double helix, coming together to show common influences one second, moving apart to reveal singularities the next. Each work spoke of a composer with an ability to make well-trodden forms and tunes distinctly his own.

Sibelius's "Valse Triste" from "Kuolema," Op. 44, once a popular encore and now a concert rarity, showed itself a dark waltz as spare themes perched on gently plucked accompaniment. In contrast, Dvorak's Slavonic Dance in C, Op. 72, No. 7, was pure sun and energy, with the strings singing with a silken tone and the woodwinds carrying earthy melodies. In just these two musical morsels, the NSO demonstrated a willingness to follow Fischer to the dynamic extremes of softness and loudness.

The Second Waltz Sequence from Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier" emerged with similar fluency and daring, and the dance episodes of Zoltan Kodaly's "Dances of Galanta" served as kind of engaging capstone. This driving score, based on Gypsy music, fused the boldness of Strauss, the mellifluousness of Dvorak and the deep expression of Sibelius. As tempo and texture shifted, each instrument section showed dexterity and polish, and NSO principal clarinet Loren Kitt and principal horn Martin Hackleman let off gorgeously wrought solos.

Brahms's Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73, received a radiant reading after intermission. Fischer showed sensitivity for the work's ebb and flow, highlighting the folk-based accents and gestures without willfully turning Brahms into some kind of nationalist composer. Instead, each detail found its proper place in a reading of formal grandeur and sweep.

Robert Henderson's careening "Einstein's Violin," which began the concert, was the seeming outlier, its deep rumblings and more modernist language feeling a bit out of place amid all the European fare. Yet the orchestra delivered the 10-minute work with a gleam and intensity that indicated that the new partnership goes both ways. This ensemble, highly experienced in American music under Slatkin, has as much to impart to Fischer as he to them.

There will be two other chances to experience an auspicious beginning when the performance repeats tonight at 7 and tomorrow at 8.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company