Music Review: NSO Performs Stravinsky, Crumb and Rachmaninoff

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009

A time-honored convention of orchestra programming is that you start with a short piece, possibly contemporary; follow it with a concerto; and finish, after the intermission, with a slightly longer work for orchestra alone. So it was rather delightful, last night, to find the National Symphony Orchestra turning that order on its head. The program, conducted by Ilan Volkov, opened with Stravinsky's ballet "Jeu de Cartes," for orchestra alone; continued with the shorter modern piece, George Crumb's "A Haunted Landscape"; and concluded with a concerto. And not just any concerto: It was the Rachmaninoff Third, with the celebrated soloist Leif Ove Andsnes making his NSO debut.

It was a smart and stimulating program. The Rachmaninoff Third is symphonic in length, romantic in flavor, and it persuaded the audience to stick around after a less-familiar first half. But the first half was in a way the more interesting: a buffet of interesting sounds for the ear to savor before the heavier fare of the final course.

Unfortunately, Volkov and the orchestra could have made a far better case for the Stravinsky. One reason the pairing of Stravinsky and Crumb is so interesting is that the two composers offer very different takes on an emphatically non-romantic style. Stravinsky's "Jeu de Cartes" shows the composer's cerebral, neoclassical style, dry and sparkly: You get the intellectual distance and at the same time a twinkle in the eye. At least, you're supposed to get it, but last night's performance had very little twinkle, in part because the orchestra didn't deliver the crisp hair-trigger detail that Stravinsky's quirky, delicate and pungent music demands. Too many telling moments were soggy in the execution.

"A Haunted Landscape" (written in 1984) calls for such a mind-boggling array of unusual percussion instruments that it's a shame the orchestra couldn't go even further in subverting convention and put all of them at the front of the stage so the audience could appreciate the objects that were producing the various shivers, plings and clops. Crumb is, like Stravinsky, a master of detail, but it's not cerebral so much as fantastic: His is a kind of Dungeons and Dragons music, in that he creates his own space and spends a lot of time populating it with meticulously crafted objects or, in this case, sounds. "A Haunted Landscape" pans the listener, as if with a 360-degree camera, across terrain that is sometimes weird, sometimes gorgeous: set here with a rasp of sandpaper blocks, here with the birdlike upward burble of a shrill oboe, and now with radiant chords that light the hall with a stained-glass glow. Crumb, who turns 80 this year, may be the least scary of late-20th-century composers: His music may sound weird at first to the uninitiated, but it is also fundamentally gentle and not in the least thorny or attitudinal. This was a landscape I was happy to spend time in.

After all the quirky details of the first half, the Rachmaninoff offered heart-on-the-sleeve satisfaction to those who want their music more linear and more direct. The main focus, of course, was Andsnes, who in this romantic picture represented the cerebral link to the rest of the program: Known as a thoughtful, probing artist, he is not usually associated with the virtuosic outpourings of Rachmaninoff, though he played the second concerto last winter. He certainly offered a powerful take on it last night, delving in to find the density and harness the dexterity to something deeper but not shying away from effect: The piano rang out with the force of a full orchestra in the first-movement cadenza. It was sometimes heavy going, but never cheap (as this piece can sound).

What was interesting is that Volkov and the orchestra rose to meet him. Perhaps the orchestra's strong strings make it a better fit for Rachmaninoff than for Stravinsky; perhaps the group is temperamentally suited to this piece. Whatever the reason, it found the telling details at the end of the final movement, and closed, with Andsnes, to the expected thunderous applause.

The program repeats tonight and tomorrow.

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