The NSO Delivers an Uncommon Pleasure

Soloist Louis Lortie performed two complete piano concertos with the NSO last night.
Soloist Louis Lortie performed two complete piano concertos with the NSO last night. (By Kass Kara)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

There were a number of empty seats at last night's National Symphony Orchestra concert. Evidently the combination of another mainly Russian program (the NSO has a strong Russian accent these days), an admired but not-quite-superstar soloist (the pianist Louis Lortie), and a conductor as yet unknown in Washington (Mark Elder, making his NSO debut) was not sexy enough to draw a big audience. Which is a shame, and the audience's loss, since it was a delightfully programmed and eminently enjoyable concert.

Many years ago, based on an opera performance in Germany, I wrote off Elder with the unyielding ferocity of youthful passion. I am glad I had a chance to reevaluate him last night. We both have grown; he, certainly, has continued to amass experience, especially in his native England (long the music director of the English National Opera, he now holds the same position with the Hall¿ in Manchester), and I -- I hope -- have become more willing to accept imperfections in the service of musical enjoyment.

Elder is not a technical wizard, nor even a consummate traffic cop. The "Danses Concertantes" that opened the program lacked the fizz and zip Stravinsky needs; rather than the deftness, the slightly wry, slightly self-mocking twinkle of the composer and his music, they lumbered along earnestly. Stravinsky writes circuslike music, but this was the dancing bear, and one wanted more acrobats.

But what Elder does have, evidently, is a sound musical sense: a sense that helped him shape a buoyant, resilient orchestral accompaniment to Lortie in Prokofiev's first concerto, and extend the first movement of the Shostakovich Sixth in long, sustained breaths of poetry, drawing one timbre seamlessly out of another, following a long hushed passage with a horn entrance so beautiful it had a palpable physical presence, and converting that to violin and viola with a gesture of the hand.

That sense was further demonstrated in an unusually attractive program, the first half echoing the second like the two sides of a Rorschach test. Each half began with a dance-based piece for chamber orchestra -- the Stravinsky was answered with Poulenc's "Aubade," a piano concerto-cum-ballet; each concluded with a larger-scale piece by Prokofiev and Shostakovich (Shostakovich being, in the last two movements of the Sixth, at his most Prokofiev-like). At the very least, it was a lot of bang for the buck: less familiar music, pleasant music, and -- a rarity -- two complete piano concertos at a single concert (the first complete NSO performances of either).

The Prokofiev took Lortie somewhat out of his comfort zone. The piece was far more forgiving of Elder's slightly blurred edges than the Stravinsky, but this made it an unusual match for Lortie's glassine touch, probably emphasized by the Fazioli piano on which he performed. A work that can be a virtuoso vehicle took on academic overtones; and at one point, Lortie audibly slipped a cog before picking up the thread. The Poulenc, by contrast, sounded like home turf; his playing even seemed fuller, though the piano still threw up harsh overtones, like barbs on wire.

"Aubade" itself is a curious hybrid, well worth hearing though perhaps not hearing often: a program ballet about the goddess Diana, who, as Elder said in brief comments, is the goddess of the moon, and the goddess of the hunt, but also the goddess of chastity -- "and it was this that was giving her trouble," he added, sealing the audience's affection for him with a quip. Mercurial and episodic, at once melodramatic and fey, it was a fine companion to the Stravinsky.

The evening also focused on a quality of sound: music with delicate and distinct textures, juxtapositions of timbre, an abundance of chamber-music solos, from Stravinsky's sinuous winds to a graceful Poulenc passage for cello. The Shostakovich led with one of the NSO's strengths, its strings, getting it off to a good start. Elder, who introduced the symphony with the brief observation that it would have been former NSO music director Mstislav Rostropovich's 81st birthday, kept the focus and the sinuousness, washing away the sobriety of the first movement with the bracing Scherzo, which he ended in a kind of sleight of hand, lifting his arms and raising the sound until it suddenly slithered off into nothing.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

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