National Symphony Revels in Russian Glories

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

The National Symphony Orchestra's current program is billed as "all-Russian." It also happens to be all 20th century, but that designation is not going to sell many tickets. In fact, it might make people actively flee, like a friend of mine in the distant past who once averred that he refused to listen to 20th-century music. "What about Prokofiev?" I countered. "Is Prokofiev really 20th century?" he said. "Oh, well, he doesn't count."

By this standard, last night's program (which repeats tonight and tomorrow) didn't count, either. It featured Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff in a program that celebrated the last vestiges of a linear tradition, and that might have been to some ears as anachronistic in the 1930s (when all three pieces had their beginnings) as it is today. It was a program celebrating the glory of the 19th-century orchestra, explored at some length, presented in works that tended to make heavy things out of light music. It opened with three of Respighi's orchestrations of Rachmaninoff's "Etudes-tableaux," arranged in a kind of symphonic suite (fast-slow-fireworks). It continued with Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra (which is actually a 1950s overhaul of the 1938 concerto), and finished in the long, long caresses of Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony, which is at once a late, gorgeous example of Russian romanticism and a blatant example of denial.

Hans Graf, the conductor, had a good touch for this music. A sufficiently firm presence, with a light hand, he brought a buoyancy to an orchestra that seems to revel in the kind of goopy music it doesn't get to perform much under its current music director. Graf let the beauty out without letting the goopiness get out of hand, and the orchestra did its best to rise to the challenge.

The NSO is a fine orchestra that somehow undermines itself. It started the Respighi arrangements with a kind of homemade quality that was slightly at odds with the lithe elegance of Respighi's orchestrations. (The program was an interesting contrast between three styles: Respighi's dry fullness, like a chardonnay; Prokofiev's slightly offbeat angularity; and Rachmaninoff's lushness.) One feels like one is repeatedly criticizing the orchestra's horn section week after week; happily last night, after another difficult first half, it redeemed itself in the symphony's second movement. And the principal strings again excelled: Nurit Bar-Josef in a brief solo at the start of the Rachmaninoff and David Hardy in a teasing response to the cello soloist in the Sinfonia Concertante.

The spotlight in this piece, however, was on soloist Alban Gerhardt -- no stranger to Washington or the orchestra -- who proved himself a worthy exponent of a piece written for, and even with, Mstislav Rostropovich. Gerhardt's tone is not huge, but what was striking was its variability: from a throaty, rather gruff opening through great sawing cadenzas to elegant clarity to, in the third movement, a rubicund, even rollicking quality, like a sea shanty. This big work is a veritable odyssey for cello, embracing everything from popular song to repeating ostinato patterns a la Philip Glass to unmistakable hints of "Peter and the Wolf" in the winds in the second movement. If the spirit of Slava hovered over it, a slightly larger shadow than Gerhardt himself was casting, Gerhardt acknowledged it in an encore, a Moderato by Rostropovich himself that added an antic, personal and perhaps more contemporary touch to the proceedings.

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