NSO's 'Serious Fun': The Schickele & the Schlock

At least they're good: Pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque were back yet again.
At least they're good: Pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque were back yet again. (By Coco -- Visionary Underground)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007

The weather is getting warmer, the National Symphony Orchestra subscription series is coming to an end, and we are entering Silly Season. Last night the NSO began a three-day festival called "Serious Fun," devoted to humor in music, with works by Camille Saint-Saëns, Emmanuel Chabrier and Witold Lutoslawski, among many lesser lights, at the Kennedy Center, under the direction of Leonard Slatkin.

Unlike, say, the groups that play soundtracks in film studios or the radio orchestras that still proliferate in Europe, the NSO is not especially good at learning and playing a lot of music quickly. This is an orchestra that is at its best when it has been thoroughly, and even strictly, rehearsed. That said, there were plenty of agreeable moments last night -- and this afternoon's program, devoted to the music of Peter Schickele ("P.D.Q. Bach") may be worth your while.

By now, Slatkin's devotion to the duo-piano team of Katia and Marielle Labeque has become something of a joke in musical circles. They visit year after year, as part of a group of friends that Slatkin relies upon when he isn't out there pushing the music industry's latest prodigy. Still, last night provided a welcome reminder that while they may be a little overexposed in the Washington area, the Labeques are very fine musicians indeed.

Lutoslawski's "Variations on a Theme by Paganini" -- far and away the best music on the program -- was presented in a lush arrangement for two pianos and orchestra, arranged by the Labeque sisters themselves. It is music both brainy and sensual, a keen wit pervading the aquatic glissandos, and it was played with immaculate charm that sometimes reached deeper.

I wish the NSO had opted to present the Labeques in Chabrier's "Souvenir de Munich," a smart parody on "Tristan und Isolde" that was originally written for two pianos but was offered last night in a gaseous and none-too-well-played orchestral arrangement by Jean Françaix. The program also contained Saint-Saëns's "Carnival of the Animals," with some smart and redemptive new verses by Schickele, who read them with burly charm. "The Swan" -- the only first-rate music in the score -- stopped the show, as it nearly always does, especially when played with the melancholy elegance that cellist David Hardy brought to it.

The program also contained Malcolm Arnold's "A Grand, Grand Overture," Gordon Jacob's "The Barber of Seville Goes to the Devil," Hans Christian Lumbye's "Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop" and Siegfried Ochs's "Humorous Variations on ' 'S kommt ein Vogel geflogen,' in the Style of Old and More Recent Masters," none of which need be heard ever again.

The festival continues this afternoon at 1:30 and concludes tomorrow night at 8, with completely different programs.

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