Maazel, Fit to Beat the Bland

Slava in bronze: The Kennedy Center unveiled a bust of beloved former NSO conductor Mstislav Rostropovich last night at the Concert Hall.
Slava in bronze: The Kennedy Center unveiled a bust of beloved former NSO conductor Mstislav Rostropovich last night at the Concert Hall. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 30, 2007

Lorin Maazel, the grand old man of American conductors, paid a welcome visit to the National Symphony Orchestra last night, though in a rather bland program of Fauré, Elgar and Saint-Saëns.

Now in his late 70s, Maazel is no longer the flamboyant podium dancer he once was. He moves gingerly and has reined in his gestures considerably. But his stature now assures him of the closest attention from orchestras, and he can do more with less. He still employs the same hyper-detailed beat patterns the NSO sees from its present music director, but with more spontaneity and relaxation.

In last night's concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Maazel used only a chamber orchestra for Fauré's "Pelléas et Mélisande" Suite; why I don't know. The lush string textures were both watered-down and treble-heavy -- 20 violins vs. seven low strings. On the plus side, Maazel moved the famous "Sicilienne" nicely along, understanding that it is a dance and not a barcarole, and there were some lovely first-chair solos.

It was fitting that the week's soloist was cellist Han-Na Chang, who became an international sensation after she won the 1994 Rostropovich Cello Competition in Paris at age 11. Slava conducted her debut recording. Last evening, the Kennedy Center installed on the box-tier level a newly created bust of Mstislav Rostropovich by Audrey Roll. It's a wonderful bronze that captures his ebullience.

Chang played the Elgar Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85. After the wispy sounds of the Fauré, the NSO's full complement of strings and winds looked like it would eat a single cello alive. But from her opening gesture, the diminutive Chang positively roared; only Lynn Harrell and Slava himself have cut through an orchestra so forcefully.

One could quibble at times. Her playing was too mannered in the Adagio; I heard notes rather than phrases, and not all of them were in tune. The complicated accompaniment did not always line up with her on opening night. But this was a musically sophisticated rendition, rhapsodic, detailed and nuanced. The only miscalculation was the work's extended coda, where Elgar's carefully graded relaxation of tempo was ignored. Still, Chang is a terrific cellist.

After intermission came Saint-Saëns's Symphony No. 3, "Organ." Written somewhat in the mold of the Franck D Minor Symphony, with its organic metamorphoses of themes throughout the work, the Saint-Saëns has remained in the repertoire more for its grandiosity than its quality. The organ explosion in the work's final section has always been the acid test of a good stereo system, but any of a dozen Hollywood composers today could write a better theme than the turgid Poco Adagio contains; and they surely would not have made it so stultifyingly long. Why don't we ever hear the far more interesting Copland Organ Symphony?

Maazel and the NSO made the most of the piece, such as it is. The Scherzo section had biting energy, with fine playing by a newcomer on timpani. Maazel made sure the Fugue (the symphony's weakest section besides the Poco Adagio theme) had clarity and direction. The big martial theme in the finale, however, sounded oddly underpowered.

The program repeats today at 1:30 p.m. and tomorrow night at 8.

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