For the NSO, Newer Is Improved

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

Contemporary music is often viewed as the spinach in the repast of a concert program: the part that's good for you but has to be gussied up to make you want to eat it. Accordingly, Leonard Slatkin warmed up last night's Kennedy Center audience by having the National Symphony Orchestra play a brief and rather lugubrious-sounding excerpt of Christopher Rouse's Second Symphony during his spoken introduction before the work's first Washington performance.

But this foretaste was an unfair introduction to a piece that has often proved an unexpected crowd-pleaser since its premiere in Houston in 1995. Consistently involving, never pandering, it opens with an industrious movement in which driving rhythms weave through the orchestra like worker bees, only to be shattered in a smash of percussion that ushers in the slow, lyrical central movement, an elegy for the composer Stephen Albert. The last movement, more anxious, more syncopated, builds in waves of sound, the brass in growling outbursts over light, active strings, to a percussion-studded climax. As played by the orchestra, the work was more athletic adventure than searing elegy, and it brought some audience members to their feet.

It was a good start for an ambitious program that was both a workout for the orchestra and a preview of its Carnegie Hall concert on Feb. 7. Unfortunately, the Rouse piece is not on that program -- unfortunate because the orchestra was unable to sustain the same level of energy for Liszt's Second Piano Concerto, which is.

Slatkin, kept busy by the opening piece, seemed at a loss as to how to bring this one to life: The opening, which can be haunting and mystical, sounded completely flat. It was up to the soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, to do the heavy lifting. Some of the magic appeared at his entrance, but it was a lot to ask of him to carry the full weight not only of virtuosity, but also of interpretation, for the length of the piece (along with the principal cellist, David Hardy, who stood out in his duet with the soloist). The orchestra seemed to have switched to "accompany" mode, though there were enough imprecisions -- poor coordination between strings and soloist; lackluster brass at what is supposed to be the rousing start of the "Marziale" section -- to call the value of their accompaniment into question. Even Thibaudet flagged in places, though he captured enough of the piece's natural showiness to stir the audience.

Slatkin and the players rallied, intermittently, for "Pictures at an Exhibition." "The Old Castle" sounded like a badly colored postcard, but the "Catacombs" were appropriately dark, and the transition from them to Baba Yaga's chicken-legged hut flashed with sparks. The performance was an object lesson in what a conductor does; there is not always a correlation between a conductor's movements and an orchestra's playing, but when Slatkin visibly gained in focus, the music audibly did, too. It is perhaps no accident that he did best in the Rouse, when the score gave everyone a lot to do; on Thursday he did not appear well able to plumb the rest of the music's emotional depths or find ways to animate it himself.

The program repeats tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.

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