Music Review: Leonidas Kavakos Plays Tchaikovsky Fifth With National Symphony

Leonidas Kavakos is soloing in Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos.
Leonidas Kavakos is soloing in Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos. (By Yannis Bournias)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

Iván Fischer and the NSO gave a performance last night that was also a rehearsal, in that it was a first airing of the core repertory of their China tour in June. Listening, one realized how limited the regular orchestra schedule of a few rehearsals and three or four performances per program fundamentally can be. Here, the players and conductor are going to have a real chance to develop their exploration of these pieces together. One wondered how the Tchaikovsky Fifth is going to sound after they've played it five or six times. It already sounded pretty great last night.

Opening the evening was the world premiere of a kind of symphonic tone poem, Daniel Kellogg's three-movement "Western Skies," a musical illustration of the Colorado landscape. This is a happy choice for a piece to bring on an orchestra tour: all-American, interesting to the ear, and both substantial and pretty. It's a happy piece, period. Kellogg, an adept composer, takes his time, layering on colors and sounds to create big massed effects rather than single musical sentences, as if assembling big landscapes before the ear. But although he avoided obvious gesture, there was no sense of stasis; of shifting clouds, rather, over the desert in "Expanse," the first movement, or of light dancing on ice with cold transparent clarity -- two solo violins, antiphonal -- in the second movement, "Moonbeams in the Snow." The last movement, "White Mountains on the Horizon," built to a sunburst ending, gleaming with brass and tubular bells and a touch of Bruckner. It seems like a piece the orchestra should be happy to play again; there was a lot here that is worth getting better acquainted with.

The orchestra is presenting two different violin concertos on different nights of this program, presumably to allow the soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, to get at least one performance of the Tchaikovsky under his belt with these forces before taking it on the road. Last night, however, the Mendelssohn Concerto was on the docket, and received a good but slightly puzzling performance. Kavakos has technique to burn but plays with an almost diffident insouciance, as if he were a little embarrassed to show his own involvement. What this meant, in the Mendelssohn, was beautiful but distanced playing; in the first movement, especially, he seemed to stay atop the music rather than plunging in and finding more expression of the singing phrases. The third movement was the most successful, showing just what a formidable player he is; the rapid playing seemed effortless, as if tossed off in big clean bow strokes that gave the piece a notable fluidity.

A great thing about Fischer is his intensity. Sometimes it looked as if he were working very hard to get the sound he wanted out of the NSO. This is not an orchestra whose strength lies in sonic beauty or opulence, although under Fischer's shaping it rose to the occasion of the Tchaikovsky Fifth, offering lyrical grace in the third movement and over-the-top mania in the protracted coda that ends the fourth. Fischer's sense of a piece's architecture is notably good; he's a storyteller who knows where his tale is going and firmly leads the orchestra there without skimping on the imagery along the way. It was a nice touch for Tchaikovsky, firm and clear yet giving emotion its due. He held the silence before the coda so convincingly that the audience didn't stir, and then plunged into the coda in a frenzy. It would be lovely to listen to the piece again after the China tour and hear if the sound deepens and the performers find ways to rise even more to the challenge.

The program repeats tonight (with the Tchaikovsky Concerto) and tomorrow night (with the Mendelssohn).

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