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NSO's Fab 4: Strength In Smaller Numbers

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

An orchestra is only as strong as the musicians who play in it, and four of the National Symphony Orchestra's strongest joined forces for a fine chamber music concert Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

By now, concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, first violist Daniel Foster, first cellist David Hardy and pianist Lambert Orkis are used to each other's work. (Bar-Josef, the youngest and most recent addition to the NSO of the four, has been with the ensemble the better part of a decade.) But the warmth, drive and mutual sympathy with which they play together is especially apparent when they leave behind the other 96 musicians in the NSO and appear as the Kennedy Center Chamber Players.

It was a strenuous program -- the dense, quasi-orchestral Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60, by Johannes Brahms; Antonin Dvorak's Trio in E Minor ("Dumky"); and Igor Stravinsky's distillation of his own "Pulcinella," which is itself a modernist take on some baroque Italian composers.

The Stravinsky, which began the afternoon, is called "Suite Italienne" in its arrangement for cello and piano, and to this taste, it will always seem a thin shadow of the bejeweled marvel he made of "Pulcinella." Still, it is Stravinsky's only large piece for cello, so if you want to play his music on that instrument, your options are limited -- and it would be hard to imagine a more vibrant and deftly characterized rendition than the one played by Hardy and Orkis.

On paper, the "Dumky" -- the name comes from a folk dance originated in the Ukraine -- can sound quite dull: a sequence of movements that all begin slowly and then speed up dramatically, one after another. Still, as with Haydn's "Seven Last Words From the Cross," which is seven long, slow movements in a row, the composer's genius transcends what might initially seem an unpromising form.

Bar-Josef and Hardy seemed to be fighting a friendly duel for much of the piece -- I've rarely heard her tone so amped up, and, for once, the sound of the cello was not lost underneath the other instruments. It was a spirited and exciting performance, and Orkis once again proved himself a master of collaborative musicmaking.

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