Energetic, if A Bit Ragged, NSO Opener Is All in Fun

Itzhak Perlman brought his usual warmth to the stage in conducting the NSO program.
Itzhak Perlman brought his usual warmth to the stage in conducting the NSO program. (By Scott Suchman)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008

The National Symphony Orchestra came charging out of the gate on Saturday night. The opening of Glinka's overture to "Ruslan and Ludmilla" was hell-for-leather: a thundering, exuberant stampede. Not surprisingly, given the wildness, the piece stumbled a bit as it rounded the first curve, perhaps because it was not absolutely clear who was supposed to be where; Itzhak Perlman, who did duty as conductor, is too warm to be a tough traffic cop. But it certainly got the job done by starting off with a bang an evening that was designed to be all about having fun.

The purpose of an orchestra gala is to be a great party, and raise money, and give everyone an excuse to dress up. Saturday night's season-opening ball succeeded admirably on all counts. (Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chairman of the Kennedy Center, announced that it had raised more than $2 million.)

The festive mode extended to the stage, where the female members of the orchestra had a rare chance to shine in colorful evening gowns. If only it had extended to a more relaxed ambiance. It seems a shame to have to listen to a Strauss waltz like "Wiener Blut" in motionless silence when the music, even if played a little heavily, is positively demanding everyone to dance along -- particularly on an evening when everyone in the audience is dressed for it.

It would be offensive to say that art isn't the point here. More accurately, the orchestra was called upon to perform the function that most people demand of it. From a sociological perspective, orchestras occupy a funny in-between terrain. A few people -- critics, notoriously, among them -- want them to continue to offer cutting-edge art to challenge, stimulate and, inevitably, provoke listeners. But many people want them simply to provide the familiar, warm, robust, predominantly 19th-century fare popularly known as "orchestral repertoire." And this taste, which is perfectly legitimate, was targeted on Saturday: The program offered lovely tunes, virtuosity and familiarity.

Alisa Weilerstein, the cellist, embodied the two latter qualities. She is the embodiment of passionate intensity, and she has already played Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme with the NSO to kick off its subscription season in 2005, so her return to open the season with the same piece in 2008 was by way of being a reprise. Weilerstein is a pleasure to listen to: She has a thick, chewy tone that gives meat even to inherently light music. Her trademark is a kind of visible ardor, with a lot of head-tossing, that can lead, in fast climactic passages, into a sloppiness that she is too good to lapse into. But she certainly sells a piece.

Perlman was the other virtuosic element -- not as conductor but as violinist. He and Pinchas Zukerman offered Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, a piece they have been playing together for what must be half a century by now, and that still had all of its sunniness. Perlman projects in all things an amiability, his big fingers flowing across the strings like oil; Zukerman dug into the viola and gestured energetically at the orchestra when he was not actually playing -- he got the conducting duties on this one -- though it was not immediately evident that his waving bow had much effect on what was going on. Mozart was not a hallmark of the Leonard Slatkin era, which the NSO has just ended. What was offered here was old-school, 20th-century-style Mozart, big and pretty, and the two soloists worked most pleasingly together in the second movement.

Interpretive finesse is not what anyone was going for. One does not engage Itzhak Perlman to be a great conductor; one engages him for star power and his easy -- sometimes too easy -- warmth. Perlman is, in fact, taking a stride in his (largely self-taught) conducting career; he has held advisory or principal-conductor positions with orchestras in the past, but next month he is taking over as artistic director and principal conductor of New York's diminutive Westchester Philharmonic.

If that appointment represents a learning curve, well, he could use a little education. Ravel's "Bolero," which concluded the program, was mechanical for its entire beginning, though he kept it chugging along. The orchestra ended the evening as it had begun: quite loud, even a little strident. Not to knock Perlman, who certainly did everything that was wanted of him, including two encores that were rapturously received: Brahms's fifth Hungarian Dance had the audience clapping along, and there was actually a squeal of excitement at the announcement of a Slavonic Dance, though Perlman himself expressed bemusement at this excess of enthusiasm.

It all added up to a lovely party. Thank you for having us. Now let's see what Ivan Fischer will bring in October.

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