Correction to This Article
A Feb. 3 Style review misspelled the last name of National Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef.

A Lasting First Impression

By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 3, 2007

Rising star Manfred Honeck made a most impressive National Symphony Orchestra debut Thursday night, presenting works of Verdi, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky. The 48-year-old maestro, who has just been named as the next music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, is a graceful, darting presence on the podium. His interpretations do not open new vistas, particularly, but the detail, intelligence and energy he brings to his craft are striking.

Honeck evoked an especially wide range of textures from the strings, who played with eager, even grateful, enthusiasm. Their years under the present music director have not been particularly nurturing or gratifying, and one felt the zeal of their response to this charismatic artist, who first learned his craft as a violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic.

Honeck's beat is detailed and expressive when necessary, but even more important, he doesn't conduct what doesn't need conducting. In the famous Andante Cantabile horn solo in the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, Honeck concentrated solely on the nuances of the accompaniment, allowing the NSO's hornist complete freedom. At other times, in strongly rhythmic passages, he simply stood still and let the orchestra play on its own. If there was a general failing, it would be the same as for everyone with that orchestra in that hall: When the brass and percussion let loose, the strings are obliterated.

Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino" featured edge-of-the-seat tempos and some of the most amazingly soft string-playing the NSO has ever achieved. Honeck shaped the woodwind lines with inviting, almost challenging gestures, and clearly had the orchestra on its toes.

Korean virtuoso Chee Yun, a frequent Washington visitor, gave us the Saint-Saens's Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor. It is hard to take this piece on its own dignified terms after reading George Bernard Shaw's delightful zinger -- "a collection of trivial dance-hall tunes sandwiched between pages from the great masters." Bromidic it most certainly is, but the flashy and forceful soloist made matters worse by frequently pushing ahead of the orchestra. She seemed to have a warm, almost roguish rapport with Honeck, so one hopes they listened to each other on subsequent evenings.

Honeck's Tchaikovsky Fifth was dramatic and finely honed, though he sometimes ignored what was in the score. Tchaikovsky's careful dynamic markings are structural as much as expressive, and here the climaxes came much too soon. The symphony's opening was almost inaudible, even though it is marked merely "p" (softly). But the way Honeck caressed lyrical sections, such as the exposition's luxuriant closing theme, was magical. The running filigree of the Valse came off brilliantly, and the finale's closing march somehow didn't sound bombastic.

The orchestra played very impressively most of the time. The clarinets managed almost perfect intonation in their opening solo, the basses were nimble and focused, and concertmaster Nurit Bar-Joseph continues to provide exemplary, impassioned leadership. A few smudges in the winds and brass only attested to the adrenaline of meeting this talented guest's exacting demands. With the NSO in the market for a new music director, it is a shame that it lost out on this one.

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