NSO's Effort: Lovely, Long

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008

For the first really cool night of fall, and the first subscription concert of its new season, the National Symphony Orchestra yesterday offered a meat-and-potatoes program of Beethoven and Shostakovich: big, satisfying music. It was, however, put in the hands of someone whose affinities seemed to lie more toward the sweet and tender. As a result the evening was often pretty, and often rather long.

The someone was Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the young Peruvian-born conductor remembered here for his 2006 debut with the orchestra as a substitute for the ailing Mstislav Rostropovich, and known as a rising talent who is now managing to get the Fort Worth Symphony, which he has led for nine years, on the map.

Harth-Bedoya is very comfortable in front of an orchestra. And he loves an orchestra's sound, luxuriating in its beauty without being in the least mannered. He has a no-nonsense approach, taking the podium briskly and plunging directly into music that he leads with ease. What he does not do is give the music a strong stamp. His phrases may flow, but he does not shape them; they pour out in a lovely but undistinguished stream.

This leads to a certain sameness, starting with Beethoven's Overture to "Consecration of the House," which presented many similar, attractive moments but did not leap out to arrest the ear. Both this and the fourth piano concerto, which followed, is more lithe than aggressive in this composer's terms. Still, both pieces seemed to lack a certain tautness. And the distinctions between repeated phrases was a continuous problem.

Hélène Grimaud, the distinctive French piano star making her belated NSO debut, did her best to counter that tendency with an intense rendition of the solo part. Grimaud, who is known offstage for her passionate love of wolves (she has established a conservation center in upstate New York), has a steeliness to both her playing and her persona. She deliberately plays down glamour -- she wore a simple black top and slacks last night -- and her playing is equally uninterested in outward show. This is not a flashy concerto, but it could have used a little more flash: The ruminative second movement was so understated that it sometimes seemed long-winded. And some of her phrasing was blunted by the use of pedal or, in a couple of places, by Harth-Bedoya's slightly unsteady orchestral balances. Still, it was an impressive performance, with clouds of sound pierced by sharp gleams of fingerwork.

The final piece was Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, another not-quite match for Harth-Bedoya's abilities. Conventional musical wisdom tends to find veiled sarcasm within Shostakovich's more cartoonlike melodies. But Harth-Bedoya, a sunny presence, played them absolutely st raight, from the violin and flute solos in the second movement to the opening of the fourth, which became less bombastic than hearty.

It was a disappointing evening only in that Harth-Bedoya did not live up to his considerable reputation. From this evidence, he appears to be able to make music, but does not seem to know quite what he wants to say with it yet. Still, sounds as beautiful as the concluding chords of the third movement are a good place to start.

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