Music Review: David Zinman Conducting the National Symphony Orchestra

David Zinman created a tight focus on 20 years in a Viennese ambience.
David Zinman created a tight focus on 20 years in a Viennese ambience. (By Priska Ketterer)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009

There's nothing like putting the names Webern and Schönberg on a program to scare off an audience. So placing both in the first half of the National Symphony Orchestra's concert last night, which David Zinman conducted, may have struck terror into some ticket-buyers' hearts. It certainly wasn't the fullest house the NSO has ever seen.

Yet the ploy was a kind of "gotcha": The two pieces on offer showed Webern and Schönberg at their most fecund, exhaling the humid overblown late-romantic atmosphere of the dawning 20th century, tinged with the heavy sweetness of decaying rose petals, before war and modernism and 12-tone rows had shaken it into a more jarring modern age. There was nothing to be scared of here.

Indeed, the whole evening was of a piece. Conductors often seek out contrasts when designing their orchestra programs, but Zinman did the opposite. Linking Webern's "Langsamer Satz" (or "Slow Movement," an early work originally written for string quartet) and Schönberg's "Verklärte Nacht" ("Transfigured Night," which the composer expanded from its original string-sextet scoring into a chamber-orchestra version in 1917 and revised again in 1943) with Brahms's Fourth Symphony created an unusually tight focus on time and place: 20 years in a Viennese ambience. Brahms's Fourth was first performed in 1885 (though not in Vienna); the original "Verklärte Nacht" in 1899; and "Langsamer Satz" in 1905.

It was a particularly interesting focus coming from Zinman, who has been music director of Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra since 1995 but is remembered in this area as the former music director of the Baltimore Symphony. His best-known work with the Tonhalle is a hugely successful Beethoven symphony cycle, which bristles with a wonderful early-music-like tautness; in Baltimore, he was an engaged supporter of contemporary composers. There's not a lot of Brahms in his in-print discography. However, he has done a lot of Richard Strauss and is currently working on a Mahler cycle, and last night's program certainly brought out his inner romantic.

It's often said that orchestras try to sugarcoat modern music so that the audience will tolerate it, and playing these early Webern and Schönberg works is definitely sugarcoating the composers' reputations. The mature Webern is so beautifully spare, like a single flower in an ikebana vase, that to get this languid, blowzy bouquet of a piece under his name feels misleading without the tonic counterbalance of, say, the Six Pieces for Orchestra. Gerard Schwarz's arrangement is an adequate expansion of this more-or-less student work, which didn't surface until the 1960s, long after the composer's death.

"Verklärte Nacht" is even more familiar, and popular: Schönberg speaking the Straussian language of "Gurrelieder" rather than the explosive one of his 12-tone period. Schönberg was basically a conservative composer; even his 12-tone works tend to be foursquare in their rhythms and overall mood, for all of the dissonances that initially startle. No dissonance here. It is a beautiful piece, though last night its petals were starting to sag: Either Zinman didn't quite have the key to it or the orchestra wasn't up to sustaining its lushness for its full span. It sounded as if the players took a while to warm up.

After all of this blowziness, Brahms's classical leanings sounded loud and clear, even though the Fourth was considered, at its premiere, the most impenetrable of his works. And Zinman's touch with the orchestra blossomed, especially in the first movement. The NSO is not particularly lush -- indeed, I was surprised last night by the strident tone of the high strings -- but Zinman's fluid understatement, with specific but economic gestures, had them rising to meet him, and the orchestra opened up beautifully. The vividness of the first movement moved into the clear horn opening that defined the start of the second and the vigor of the third. Only the last movement paled a bit, as if, having gotten such fine energy, no one was altogether sure where to go with it.

The program will repeat tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.

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