The NSO Under a Young Baton

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was a little too energetic with the NSO last night.
Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was a little too energetic with the NSO last night. (By Marie-reine Mattera)
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By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 11, 2008

Last night's National Symphony Orchestra debut of the rising Canadian maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin was an inconclusive affair. Nézet-Séguin chose an all-Russian program -- Shostakovich, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff. It is certainly a familiar idiom to the NSO, but one that emphasizes a relatively limited spectrum of musicmaking: orchestral color over expressive complexity, raw emotion over subtlety of phrasing, visceral events over architecture.

Nézet-Séguin is young and talented, right now perhaps too young and too talented. His hyperkinetic podium style looks at times like shadowboxing. He clearly feels the music, but also clearly conducts for the audience. A good professional orchestra does not need triplet rhythms dictated to it, nor interpretive dancing. Nézet-Séguin often was so caught up in "the moment" that he neglected basic matters such as balance; Shostakovich's pellucid orchestration in the Suite From "The Gadfly" was frequently opaque sonic snow, particularly in the first and fourth numbers.

Nézet-Séguin's strengths are in his control of time; every tempo change, whether abrupt or gradual, was expertly drawn, and he clearly understands how music moves in different metrical units even if the tempo doesn't change. His handling of the Tempo di Valse movement from Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances" was natural and intoxicating.

Lithuanian violinist Julian Rachlin was the evening's soloist in the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1. Rachlin, in his mid-30s, is a patrician player in the mold of Henryk Szeryng. His sound is chocolaty, his rhetoric expansive. I felt he miscalculated with his half-tone parlando style in the opening; the gray gloom pervades the entire movement and there is no musical reason to warm up the sound later on, which he did.

But the Scherzo was a revelation. Rachlin caught the grotesquerie with a huge arsenal of expressive devices, making the movement more frightening than I've ever heard it. He drew big-league beauty out of his Guarnerius in the Passacaglia, and in the connecting cadenza he played with unusual freedom and color, teetering on the brink in the fastest bits. Nézet-Séguin accompanied closely, but the NSO winds blended poorly in the opening of the Passacaglia.

It's remarkable that the NSO did not play the Rachmaninoff, a standard repertoire piece, until 1988, and then not under Mstislav Rostropovich. Be that as it may, the orchestra dug into the vigorous music with its customary energy. Wind blend and tuning were again a problem in the middle section of the first dance (the unfamiliar presence of a saxophone may have been one cause) but the strings sang out strongly, and Nurit Bar-Josef's solo in the Valse was a highlight. Nézet-Séguin is definitely a talent to watch.

This enjoyable program will be repeated this afternoon and tomorrow night at the Kennedy Center.


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