Music Review: National Symphony Orchestra With Gil Shaham and Hannu Lintu

Blown away by winds and brass: Gil Shaham.
Blown away by winds and brass: Gil Shaham.
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By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 27, 2009

This week's National Symphony Orchestra program features, in addition to the terrific violinist Gil Shaham, fresh repertoire and a conducting debut. Unfamiliarity and newness can create either frisson or careful, "defensive" playing, and there was a little of both last evening. Hannu Lintu is the latest of a remarkable stream of talented Finnish conductors, and has already appeared with top orchestras around the world. On the evidence of last evening's performance, he has vehemence and pizazz to spare, but is still acquiring gravitas and musical judgment.

Lintu is all about strong, clear beats (often with both hands) and cuing, but there's not much expressive direction beyond obvious things. In singing passages, he often just held a generic palm-upward gesture, and one rarely felt him anticipating and building a long paragraph of music. The most serious deficiency is his ear for balances; the NSO has always had problems with the brass and percussion overbalancing the strings, but last night was the worst it's ever been.

The program began with the local premiere of Thomas Adès's Overture, Waltz and Finale from "Powder Her Face," a heavily fleshed-out arrangement of excerpts from a 1995 chamber opera. Adès is a composer of real substance, but the congealed Straussian orchestration (with a veritable armada of percussion) obscured some witty refractions of familiar idioms such as the fox trot and waltz. If there was an upside, it was that the undifferentiated thickness covered up some visible insecurities in the strings, particularly in the Finale.

Next, Shaham offered the Stravinsky Concerto. The violinist is not a perfectionist, like Hilary Hahn (though he's close); his true forebear is the young Itzhak Perlman, particularly the sense that making music is fun. The concerto, with its puckish virtuosity and soulful middle movements, fits Shaham down to his toes. If only we could have heard more of it. Not once during the performance did Lintu raise a suppressing hand to the winds or brass, and despite ferocious effort, Shaham was able to effectively work his expressive magic only in the quiet Aria 2.

The concert repeats tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.

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