NSO Makes the Most of a Thin Connection

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 15, 2006

Last night's Kennedy Center performance by the National Symphony Orchestra, led by Music Director Leonard Slatkin, was an eclectic affair. The only thing tying a program of Beethoven, Saint-Saens and Ginastera together was quality playing. It may have missed a chance to find enlightening connections, but the NSO sounded consistently alive and fresh and, when taken on its own terms, each work was enjoyable to hear.

Whether a highly refined 20th-century score or a blazing French concerto, the music emerged with facility and color, speaking at every turn of a flexible ensemble that can carry out convincing, if not overly idiosyncratic, renderings of diverse repertoire. The performance highlighted the strong foundation Slatkin has built for the orchestra to grow on in the years ahead.

This dexterity and polish came out in the first bars of Alberto Ginastera's Concerto for Strings, Op. 33, which merges Latin-inspired melodies and rhythms with rarefied and subtly dissonant harmonies. The Argentine composer made a career on this amalgamation of the local and the abstract, and the 1965 concerto represents a kind of light-handed application of the language, speaking with lyricism and a character that the NSO thoroughly captured.

Demonstrating a firm grounding in the style, the strings were shapely and alert in the sultry opening with the NSO string principals letting off silvery solos, while the textures morphed beautifully in the ensuing Scherzo. After a delicately wrought Adagio, the finale barreled along with relentless pulse and bravado.

The mood soon shifted to flowing 19th-century French romanticism, as the fine American artist Andre Watts joined the orchestra for a crisp reading of Saint-Saens's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. One of the French composer's more popular works, the concerto rides along on hearty discourse between orchestra and soloist, as well as some bravura piano writing.

Watts's full-bodied yet articulate sound worked superbly. The opening cadenza -- full of darkness and angst -- forcefully set the mood, with the orchestra letting out giant swells in response. The airy second movement Scherzo scampered along with good cheer, and the finale burst with energy and sparkle as Watts hurled pounding chords and rippling arpeggios like thunder and lightning.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, came after intermission. The performance yielded pleasing highlights, such as a relentless rhythmic energy in the opening and brass blasts in the rousing finale. This was musicmaking of honesty and directness if not grandeur and drama. Swift tempos and focus on detail gave a sense of light and shade often sapped from the work in overweening, almost overtly political, performances. In this more restrained and polished way, the performance made for a fitting tribute to the great composer, whose 236th birthday comes tomorrow.

The concert repeats tonight at 7 and on the big day at 8.

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