Minus the Star Power, NSO Sparkles

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009

The orchestra was the star. There were no soloists at the National Symphony Orchestra performance last night, no beguiling overtures or showy concertos. There were just two big, serious pieces of music; Iván Fischer, the principal guest conductor, during one of his five precious weeks here this season; and the NSO musicians, who rose to the challenge and carried the evening very well on their own.

The first piece, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, is one of the great orchestral showpieces ever written: Since its premiere in 1944, it has hardly been out of the repertory. It is also a paean to Hungary, the homeland of both Bartók and Fischer. Hungary will be in the spotlight in Washington this weekend with the start of a festival called "Extremely Hungary" (it opens with a Bartók/Kurtág program at the Library of Congress on Saturday), and it's a shame that Fischer's fine Budapest Festival Orchestra, which played in the New York section of the festival in January, couldn't have come here as well and treated listeners to the luxury of a comparison between two different interpretations.

But this performance left no sense of anything missing. It was nice to hear, in fact, how well the winds and brass, in particular, rose to the occasion; each section of the orchestra is spotlighted, but here the individual components generally represented a successful collaboration.

Fischer is a conductor who works in great detail but does not, at least from the audience, give the impression of micromanaging the music: What comes across is clear elucidation without interpretive shtick. This approach could be called musical decency; it came across in the fourth movement, for instance, which sounded like a zany take on a Broadway musical, with humorous commentary, rather than a slightly mean-spirited parody. There's room for mean-spiritedness here, since Bartók was taking a dig at Shostakovich's obsessively repeated theme from the Seventh Symphony, but the music came out with energetic vitality instead.

Serious orchestra fans can essay their own comparisons with the other piece on the program, Dvorák's Seventh, which Marin Alsop will lead with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in March. It is hard to imagine she can top this performance. Dvorák was aiming to write a hit, and he got it: Bearing the stamp of its time and place, the music wells up with the self-confident richness of sound of the late Victorian age, good-naturedly overstuffed. (It had its first performance in London, though it is not a markedly English piece in the way that the "New World" is American.) The second movement, in particular, was ravishingly beautiful, starting with an opening that conveyed a sense of veneration; a few bobbles in the strings did nothing to mar its velvet.

It's too bad this kind of program seems so unsexy to the ticket-buying public. But it's hardly surprising that there were empty seats in the Concert Hall. In Beethoven's day in Vienna, when concert programs were loaded with what now would seem a vaudeville-worthy variety of vocal and instrumental soloists, such a serious concert would have been just as hard a sell at the box office as it is now. Those who were present, however, were rewarded.

The concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night.

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