The NSO's Wild Wonderland

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

Guilty pleasures. Serious fun. Heavy entertainment: It's hard to know what to call the National Symphony Orchestra's program last night. It was filled with music that many people might dismiss as light, or even in bad taste: Paganini's Violin Concerto, written as a showpiece for a flashy virtuoso, and David Del Tredici's hour-plus "Final Alice," as untrammeled and in-your-face as a piece of orchestral music can get.

Yet the concert was utterly intense and compelling. Many classical music fans will readily believe that the violinist Hilary Hahn can make something breathtaking out of the Paganini, but they may not be prepared for a dramatic reading of the last two chapters of "Alice in Wonderland," performed with ceaseless energy and stratospheric high notes by a soprano who appears to be channeling Lucia di Lammermoor on acid. Believe me, the latter is as much worth hearing as the first.

The orchestra began with the Overture to Verdi's "I Vespri Siciliani" to signal that this was to be an evening of entertainment. But there is no need to consider the overture too carefully; the orchestra certainly didn't. It showed the eager, sloppy energy of a dog that leaps when a ball is thrown, but then turns in circles to figure out where the ball has landed: There were a lot of fractured entrances with chords that took a minute to come into focus.

Hahn then made her entrance in a black dress with decollete that reached nearly to her navel. I would not mention the soloist's dress had it not so well matched the piece she played, and the way she played it. On most women, that dress would have appeared provocative, vulgar; on Hahn it epitomized cool and classic elegance. By the same token, she took Paganini's showy and probably vulgar piece and treated it as if it were the finest music, and as if her prodigious feats of violin playing were all in its service.

I personally am a recent Hahn convert (though plenty of listeners could have told me my error long ago), so perhaps I speak with a convert's zeal: Her control over the instrument last night was jaw-dropping. She held a singing legato all through Paganini's leaps and double-stops and Italian-opera-style figurings, and in the cadenza she put all that aside and wove her own delicate net around the long lines of the music. When it was over, called back by applause, she offered a pure, clean, honest reading of the Sarabande from Bach's Second Partita; it says a lot about the way she played the Paganini that the Bach seemed a complement rather than a departure.

And then: "Final Alice." It was written in 1976, and is in a way a psychedelic relic of its time, with lots of wild, luscious orchestral colors (including a theremin uttering its horror-movie "woowoowoo" sound effect at Alice's unpredictable growth spurts) to illustrate Lewis Carroll's inimitable dreamscape. It is easy to forget today that composers who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s felt constrained to write in a particular kind of intellectual academic style, and with this piece Del Tredici is not merely throwing off those constraints, but giving the whole style the figurative raspberry. The work's tonal passages are less the issue than its sprawling, glorious self-indulgence: its obsessive focus on a forbidden love (the tacit fixation on the figure of Alice is at its heart); its length; its flashes of quotation (was that a big band? do I hear Ravel's "La Valse"?); and even, at the end, the composer's signature, when the soprano counts, in Italian, the chimes of miniature cymbals, until she reaches the 13th, when the whole orchestra whispers "Tredici!"

The piece is a tour de force, in all its sprawling zany length, though it is certainly not everyone's cup of tea. Music Director Leonard Slatkin deserves kudos for bringing it back in its uncut length for its first performance in decades. Equal praise is owed to the soprano Hila Plitmann for pulling off a work that has her onstage, alternately speaking, singing at stratospheric heights and screaming into a bullhorn for more than an hour. Since I have broken a taboo and spoken of dresses, I should mention Plitmann's, topped with a tulle-and-flower skirt that made her look like a cross between a flower child and Dickens's Miss Havisham, and somehow like Alice at the same time. She has a wonderful speaking voice, sings like an angel (Del Tredici's arias are like hyper bel canto; his main theme echoes an ornament from "Caro ome" in Verdi's "Rigoletto") and squeals like a guinea pig when the text compels her to do so. If this doesn't pique your interest, nothing will.

There are two more performances of this program, tonight and tomorrow night: Go, and prepare to enjoy yourself, but fasten your seat belt.

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