NOI: One Month to Perfection

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2007

Another great orchestra has come and gone. On Saturday night, the 2007 National Orchestral Institute, which had been honing its skills at the University of Maryland School of Music for most of June, disbanded with a final concert at the Clarice Smith Center.

This was a spectacular program, the best moments ranking with anything I've heard this season from either the National or Baltimore symphony orchestra. It was hard to believe this was the work of students: I would challenge any string section in the world to play the unbelievably fast, painfully exposed long unison passages in the middle of the first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 as cleanly and pointedly as they were played Saturday. It sounded as though Jascha Heifetz had somehow cloned himself 25 or 30 times and his offshoots were all trying for speed records in the Guinness Book.

Every summer, more than 80 carefully chosen musicians come to the University of Maryland to participate in intensive study with conductors and first-desk players from orchestras around the country, and then play three concerts. The players this year ranged in age from 19 to 28; most were in their early 20s.

The musicians' relative inexperience here acts as a stimulus. It is most unlikely that they have ever played, say, the Shostakovich Fourth before, and indeed, most of them have probably spent little time working in such a large ensemble with musicians who are their peers. In short, there was nothing of the routine "gig" about the playing. No, this was absolutely for real -- a group of abundantly talented young men and women testing their limits, with little thought about anything except how to make the music shine.

And shine it did -- indeed, the blazing chorales for brass in the finale, a mix of purest C major and shocking dissonance, called to mind the experience of walking into brilliant sunshine after an eye doctor has dilated your pupils, the world made so bright and intense and colorful that, paradoxically, you can scarcely see. Conductor Jorge Mester led this weird, shrieking masterpiece with the combination of urgency and proportion that it demands: If long sections of the first movement sounded rather baggy, well, Shostakovich apparently found them so himself. In any event, all is forgiven by the time the symphony ends.

The program began with a lushly caloric rendition of Mozart's Sinfonia in D, an effective extraction of three movements from the same composer's Serenade (K. 320, "Posthorn"). If it occasionally sounded somewhat bass-heavy, that may have had to do with a certain acoustical tubbiness inherent in this concert hall, at least in the first balcony, where I was sitting. But I admired the way Mester urged his forces to play out: This was not the tidy, prettified, faintly wispy Mozart that we so often hear from "authentick bandes," but a performance of loving and impulsive grandeur.

Leonard Bernstein wrote great show music, and he occasionally triumphed with what he considered "more serious" composition as well. (One thinks of "Chichester Psalms" or the radiant final movement of "Arias and Barcarolles.") In general, however, Bernstein's most self-consciously "classical" music tries too hard -- he wants to prove himself a Deep Thinker rather than the natural amuser that he was. The Divertimento for Orchestra heard Saturday night contains some charming waltz tunes, but they're larded with banal brass proclamations and some truly embarrassing striptease jazz (how multicultural of you, Lennie!).

The performance, however, could not have been much bettered, even had Bernstein's ghost somehow found his way to the Clarice Smith Center and struck up the band himself.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company