The NSO, Con Brio At Carnegie Hall

Leonard Slatkin, conducting the National Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Thursday in a program notable for its balance of genres.
Leonard Slatkin, conducting the National Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Thursday in a program notable for its balance of genres. (By Steve J. Sherman)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

NEW YORK -- Every two years or so, the National Symphony Orchestra performs at Carnegie Hall. In past years, Leonard Slatkin has made contemporary work a calling card, but this year's concert on Thursday showed an obligatory, responsible balance in its programming.

There was the new work the orchestra had commissioned: Mason Bates's "Liquid Interface," which had its world premiere in Washington a year ago. There was a piece from the standard repertory on which the orchestra had put its own stamp (and which it has played at Carnegie before): Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," with some minor tweaks and modifications by Slatkin. And there was a warhorse that the orchestra trots out every few years: Liszt's Second Concerto, with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

The orchestra took the last two works out for a spin two weeks ago at the Kennedy Center. At Carnegie, they really did sound more lively, and less dry. The Lizst, which had tended toward listlessness on the first night of the Kennedy Center run, sounded fuller and more energized. A highlight, as was the case at the Kennedy Center, was the duet between the principal cellist, David Hardy, and the piano soloist. It was a moment when the world stopped and chamber music happened in a crowded room.

It also sounded as if Thibaudet and the orchestra had found their way to each other. Their interpretation was more fused, and there was none of the slippage between soloist and ensemble that was audible on their first night. Unfortunately, Thibaudet seemed not to be at the top of his form. There are certain repertory pieces that a soloist has to play again and again, and on Thursday the Liszt definitely sounded like one of them. The clangy Carnegie Hall piano, less sonorous than the one Thibaudet used in Washington, did not help him stand out from the more energized orchestra; other passages were simply lackluster.

There were also strong moments in the Mussorgsky -- the crisp end of the "Gnomus" section, and, once again, the dramatic transition into the "Baba Yaga" vignette. Sonic opulence is not the first thing you think of with this orchestra, but it roused itself to give a very passable semblance of it, particularly at the close.

If there was a link between the three pieces, it lay in the idea of illustrative music: a sequence of pictures by Mussorgsky, a piano concerto by a master of musical tone poems, and Bates's piece, a tone poem about water, impressive for its length though perhaps a little too much of a good thing.

The soloist here is Bates himself, playing a laptop that furnishes an ambient echo, various percussive sounds and actual literal illustrations in the form of recordings of glaciers calving or the creaking of sailboat masts.

"Computer music" has come a long way since the experimental days of Bell Labs; for Bates, the laptop is another color in the spectrum, and he manages the difficult fusion of different styles without sounding awkward or condescending.

The resulting work is not quite as monumental as it seeks to be, but it's easy on the ears, now sliding sinuously into a grooving beat, now offering galloping percussive sounds from Bates's taps on the computer, now throwing out flecks of Gershwin color in its big-band, New Orleans-tinged third movement ("Crescent City"). At the end it offers gentle reassurance before sliding away in a breath of wind, literally, over the mikes. "I don't like all modern pieces," said a father in the audience to his little girl, "but this was really nice."

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