NSO Taps Into Germanic Richness

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, January 12, 2007

The National Symphony Orchestra's powerful and poignant concert at the Kennedy Center left no question where Germanic music gets its reputation for seriousness and depth.

The program spanned well-known Schubert (the "Unfinished" Symphony) to more obscure Hindemith (his sole violin concerto). Textures shifted, harmonies varied and singular compositional voices emerged, yet common to each score were masterful craftsmanship and intense expression. As opposed to Italianate charm or French subtlety, this romantic music deals directly in human passions.

The NSO, under Music Director Leonard Slatkin, played it all with dexterity and polish, applying the rich golden sound that they have worked so hard to develop in recent years. The full-bodied resonances and curving lines sounded positively incandescent, and while the contemporary American music that Slatkin frequently presents is thrilling, when the NSO jumps into these brambles, more of its character and spirit seem to come out.

It helped that the orchestra was paired with a like-minded artist in the form of violinist Leila Josefowicz. Of Polish descent, Canadian-born and American-raised, the 29-year-old virtuoso plays with a warmth and patrician elegance that belie her relative youth.

Frequent collaborators, Josefowicz and the NSO struck up a strong bond in the first measures of Hindemith's concerto. The composer completed the three-movement work while in exile in Switzerland on the eve of World War II. Though melancholy and foreboding prevail, the work has a lighter side far removed from horrors soon to unfold, and the musicians expertly tapped into both veins.

In the more tumultuous sequences of the opening movement, Josefowicz deployed such impressive gestures as rhythmic runs and flighty trills. Yet it was in the more lyrical second movement, straddling serenity and supplication, that the guts of her artistry came out. Here, Josefowicz played with deep poetry and established a tender back-and-forth with the NSO, which provided sensitive accompaniment along the way. Spectral rays of sound emerged out of her violin in the finale's cadenza.

The concert's first half was given over to symphonic fragments, starting with Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759. The NSO cellos imbued the opening theme with dark mystery. Slatkin skillfully combined themes and balanced the textures, developing climaxes of clarity and force. The second movement was by turns amiable and lofty with some genuinely startling moments, such as when the towering orchestra clamps down on a genial conversation among the woodwinds.

The NSO's account of the Adagio from Mahler's Symphony No. 10 tied Mahler and Schubert together, highlighting the lilting themes and a similarly interrupting orchestra swell. Even more than those neat connections, though, the reading was remarkable for its profound sentiment, its long-arching themes singing nostalgically, now with regret and bleak remorse.

As if to say, "No more of these unhappy thoughts," Slatkin and the NSO capped off the evening with an effervescent account of Johann Strauss Jr.'s famous "Emperor Waltz," Op. 437. It was an airy affair with those lush themes flecked with sparkling detail.

This enjoyable concert repeats tonight at 7 and tomorrow at 8.

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