Pianist Yundi Li Electrifies In Concert With the NSO

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007

As Noel Coward observed some 75 years ago, it is indeed strange how potent cheap music can be.

Nobody will ever mistake Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, which closed the first half of the National Symphony Orchestra's concert last night at the Kennedy Center, for any kind of masterpiece. On the contrary, it is mostly clattering and rhetorical. And yet -- when it is played with the spirit that the young Chinese pianist Yundi Li brought to it last night -- it can momentarily convince a listener, in spite of everything.

Indeed, this was wonderful playing -- polished but never sterile, impassioned but never untethered, exciting as all get out. Li seems to be able to get anything he wants from a piano -- whether the most silken of soft passages or vast, thundering Niagaras of octaves. I wish we'd heard him in a more distinguished piece, but this was thrilling pianism on every level.

NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin is often at his best as an accompanist, and last night's performance was no exception. He was right there when he was required, but happy to defer to Li when not. Slatkin brought an almost classical mien to the music and his forces rewarded him with deft and responsive playing. Indeed, Slatkin's performances with the orchestra this season have been more reliable than they've been in several years.

The program began with four pieces by Maurice Ravel: "Alborada del Gracioso," the "Pavane pour une Infante Defunte," the "Menuet Antique" and "La Valse." I particularly liked the way Slatkin seemed to be presiding happily over a big, bustling carnival in "Alborada," with its elegant explosions of color. And "La Valse" had the right sense of impending apocalypse, although the genuinely luscious melodies that precede the chaos have been sung out more lovingly in other performances.

There is a reason why we generally hear big, tub-thumping Soviet ballets in 20-minute increments. Nobody plays an hour of Aram Khachaturian's "Gayne" or Reinhold Gliere's "Red Poppy" nowadays: They simply don't keep our attention. But Slatkin elected to present roughly half of Serge Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" last night. I find that the score's meticulously crafted faux-crudity wears thin pretty quickly, but it proved a good full-body workout for the orchestra, and the NSO's performance was appropriately blatant and energetic.

The concert will be repeated tonight at 7 and tomorrow night at 8.

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