NSO Takes Flight With 'Four Angels'

Leonard Slatkin and the NSO (pictured in 2004) sounded genuinely happy to be making music together last night.
Leonard Slatkin and the NSO (pictured in 2004) sounded genuinely happy to be making music together last night. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

Had you picked up this newspaper a dozen years ago in search of a review of the National Symphony Orchestra, there was a chance that the notice might have been written by Mark Adamo, a gifted and perceptive young man who was then a regular contributor.

Adamo has gone on to grander things, among them the composition of an enormously popular opera based on Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." And, last night at the Kennedy Center, the NSO played the world premiere of his latest work, a four-movement concerto for harp titled "Four Angels."

All sentiment aside, this is one of the best new pieces Music Director Leonard Slatkin has championed -- an ambitious, eloquent and often radiantly beautiful confection for an instrument that is notoriously difficult for a composer to work with. The harp can do many things, but it is more adept at swooping arpeggios and cascading glissandos than it is at carrying simple melodic lines.

Adamo's scoring for harp struck me as direct, idiomatic and appealing, and the performance by Dotian Levalier, for whom it was written, was both subtle and majestically authoritative. On a first hearing -- and contrary to advance notice -- "Four Angels" did not seem to break much new ground for the instrument (with the exception of a long passage in the second movement that sounded bracingly like some mixture of a Balinese gamelan orchestra and an electric ukulele sliding in and out of tune), but it is a terrific addition to the literature nonetheless.

There was inventive play with orchestral sound effects throughout the concerto, but they were always put to lyrical ends. Indeed, "Four Angels" is communicative from first note to last, yet never descends into the easy-listening pastiche that too often typifies so-called accessible modern music. It deserves a future.

The program began with Haydn's Symphony No. 85 in B-flat ("La Reine") -- a performance both taut and plump, with perhaps a few more strings than were good for it. Slatkin left the music pretty much alone, which only heightened one's admiration for the composer's hearty, plainspoken and all-but-indestructible powers of invention.

Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D ("Titan") concluded the evening. Despite some sections that could have used more rigorous rehearsal, it was great to hear the NSO throw itself so wholeheartedly into the score. Slatkin and the players sounded genuinely happy to be making music together -- the brass playing was particularly inspired -- and the symphony itself came across as wonderfully fresh.

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

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