Music Review: National Symphony Orchestra With Guest Conductor Charles Dutoit and Pianist Yuja Wang

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

When people talk about color in music, they mean something like the concert the National Symphony Orchestra gave last night. Think Monet brush strokes, shaggy and individual, yet precise moments of a whole, or think dappled sunlight and flesh in a Degas pastel and you get the idea of the kind of light and shade and texture and sound -- and occasional roughness -- that Charles Dutoit got out of the NSO.

The first piece on the program awoke the ear to the theme, simply because it was a translation from one medium into another. Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" is best-known as a six-movement piece for piano solo; the composer later orchestrated four of the sections into a work that from the first bars thrusts the music into a new context, with a warm oboe and busily scampering accompaniment taking the place of the piano undulations of the original. It was as if Ravel had plunged the piece into a tank of water to yield a new spectrum of shimmering refractions.

None of it would have been as liquid and transparent and ephemeral without Dutoit on the podium. The conductor offered a reminder that he is a true pro; if such a reminder is needed, it is only because Dutoit, debonair and agile, is perhaps slightly underrated, viewed less as a big star than simply as a fine, solid musician, the kind of person you can turn to when you need leadership in your ensemble and haven't yet picked your next music director. (He is currently serving a four-year appointment as chief conductor of the floundering Philadelphia Orchestra, a position akin to Iván Fischer's two-year tenure with the NSO.)

Dutoit is certainly not splashy. Indeed, it wasn't a concert that grabbed the ear. Rather, he kept the orchestra on its toes with continual restraint, flicking in and out of bursts of sound, moving fluidly from one thought to another -- even, at the end of the Ravel, from being in the middle of the music to having the piece be over, as if the sound and silence were part of the same idea.

Whatever he did, the orchestra's sections sounded unusually fine: The solo oboe in the Ravel was clear and elastic; the trombones filled with taut power, balanced against the bite of trumpet, at the end of the final piece, Stravinsky's "Firebird." Admittedly, there were some loose moments in that work, when Dutoit briefly allowed things to get a little blowzy, building from precise changes in meter to a big swirling wash of sound. And when he didn't stay right on top of things, you could hear the playing start to drift.

The main soloist of the evening was 22-year-old Yuja Wang, already veteran enough to risk being dismissed with some catchall term like "the latest Chinese phenomenon" (she, like Lang Lang, studied at Curtis). Her piece was Prokofiev's Second Concerto, which is technically formidable enough to keep her formidable talent occupied. The risk that she faces is that of becoming merely a technician: Sometimes she simply seemed to be hammering at the piano to create her part of the huge howling storm of music rising from the stage. She is far better than that, though. She, too, can create colors aplenty on her instrument: singing limpid strokes, or a haze like water droplets about to yield a rainbow. At one point in the fourth and final movement, notes from the right hand sounded as if they came from the orchestra's winds rather than her keyboard, reclaiming the sound of an orchestra for the keyboard again.

The program repeats tonight and tomorrow night at 8.

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