From NSO, the Energy of a 'City'

Friday, May 18, 2007

This week's National Symphony Orchestra subscription concerts offer a bracing mix of the once- familiar, the brand-new and the played-to-death.

George Enescu's earthy, toe-tapping Romanian Rhapsody No. 2 appeared regularly on concert programs decades ago, but was gradually pushed out by more highbrow fare. It is good to see this appealing music come back now and then.

The program's main work last night was the local premiere of Jennifer Higdon's three-part "City Scape," composed in 2002 for the Atlanta Symphony. Higdon's music is lithe and expert. Although not all the thematic material is particularly memorable, there is no empty note-spinning, and her snazzy pieces stick in the mind. She is particularly expert in her percussion writing; her Percussion Concerto is perhaps the finest such work in the repertoire, and "City Scape" features extremely imaginative passages for an extensive battery in all three pieces. The percussion does not simply add color and flavor to the orchestra; it has its own idiomatic themes as part of the music's basic material.

The first piece, "SkyLine," harks back to similar urban soundscapes by Aaron Copland, William Schuman and Samuel Barber, but carries its own churning energy. The second, "river sings a song to trees," is particularly original; fluttering, shimmering sounds gradually give way to several haunting, primal-sounding themes building to a well-developed climax. Some woodwind chorales evoke Barber, but this piece, at the very least, should have an active life of its own after these initial premieres.

"Peachtree Street," the last piece in "City Scape," has formulaic writing, but it is jumpy and fun. NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin does this sort of music particularly well. It must be said, however, that no progress is being made in balancing brass and percussion against the strings; many, many times, the strings were obliterated. Higdon -- in attendance to take well-deserved bows -- and the NSO have shared successes , and one looks forward to the premiere of her upcoming Piano Concerto, announced for a "future season."

After intermission, Lang Lang joined the orchestra in the ubiquitous Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. This charismatic young matinee idol seems to have broken through to a new level in his development. He has taken note of the sniggers from professional musicians at the mugging and antics that so marred his early appearances and has toned everything down, with splendid results. His performance was controlled and elegant. He still thinks his hands are very, very pretty, but the musicmaking was lapidary, and mature. He took his time in the big cadenza, creating an entirely different sound-world than elsewhere in the piece.

In the slow movement, Lang spun wonderful (and selfless) filigree around David Hardy's cello solo. The central scherzando section was, as expected, coruscating. Lang did not try to set any speed records in the finale, although he almost certainly could have. There was some goofy rubato in the folk-tune themes, but the performance showed a new, impressive dimension to this artist. Slatkin's collaboration was expert, although the orchestra can, and has, played this work in its sleep. One hopes the horns will agree on their opening notes in the next two performances, when the program repeats tonight and tomorrow night.

-- Robert Battey

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