Echoes of the Past, Amplified by the NSO

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008

Symphonies are often framed as valedictories: nostalgic views at something that was. This notion extends back at least as far as Brahms (who spent his life keenly aware of the achievements of Beethoven and the difficulties of matching them) and continues through the 20th century: Think Mahler, think Prokofiev, think Bernstein. And it is certainly upheld in the symphonies of John Corigliano, whose First, commonly known as the "AIDS" Symphony, won a Grammy for Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra, and whose Second, a reworking of a farewell piece written for the last-ever tour of the Cleveland Quartet, had its first performance with the orchestra under Slatkin at the Kennedy Center last night.

Corigliano is a composer who, for all of his achievements and honors, never quite seems to get the respect he deserves. Many people say there no longer are schools of composition, yet Corigliano seems not to fit neatly into any of the non-schools, either. His music can be both rigorous and romantic, cerebral and expressive, in a way that is evidently difficult to package -- both for listeners and for himself. The Second Symphony, for string orchestra, is a conglomerate work that ranges from quasi-serial techniques to pure program music: that is, a third movement depicting a night in Morocco with aural evocations of cicadas and the crystal shards of stars.

Corigliano is not the first symphony composer to get hung up in semantics: Having said he would never write another symphony, he wiggled around his self-imposed prohibition by writing a string symphony, placing the work in a different category. The result amplifies the wistful, vaporous arc of the original quartet, with five movements arranged in a palindromic sequence -- the postlude echoes the prelude; the second-movement Scherzo, the fourth-movement fugue -- rising out of near-silence, and dying away, at the end, after final warm outcries.

A string symphony capitalizes on the evident strengths of the NSO, which brought a lithe string tone to the whole and underlined the richness of Corigliano's writing. (The composer described the opening of the second movement as "slashing chords," but he is far too genial in his outlook actually to slash: This music had warmth and vigor rather than harshness.) The fourth movement, a fugue in which the sections are played not only at different times but at different speeds, highlighted a natural raucousness to the orchestra's sound. But the patches of quiet, muffled with practice mutes, were sometimes difficult for Slatkin to pull off without the music falling apart altogether.

Slatkin's approach was generally relaxed -- sometimes merely lax. In the Corigliano, interpretive slackness could be excused by the complexity of the writing; but the Brahms Violin Concerto, which concluded the program, also had its fluidity interrupted by moments of mere flab. Sarah Chang, the soloist, did her utmost to add spark, tearing into the piece with a ferocity that sometimes threw off her lovely line altogether. Extra effort can yield diminishing returns; her playing in the Adagio was warm and clear, but when she plunged into the last movement her sound seemed to diminish through the extra fetters of tension she placed on it.

The Brahms concerto, of course, looks back to Beethoven's. The program opened with what one might call the focus of the nostalgia: Mozart, elevated in hindsight to an emissary of a kinder, gentler time, represented by the Overture to "The Magic Flute." It is the second time in a week that I have heard this in an orchestral concert -- the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played it last week -- but it still seems, of all possible overtures, a rather odd choice, even if Slatkin and his players did their best, with warmth if not quite the accurate idiom, to make it sound truly symphonic.

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

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company