With Eleventh-Hour Conductor Change, National Symphony Ends 2008-09 Season

Soprano Karita Mattila seemed not entirely engaged with the words and music.
Soprano Karita Mattila seemed not entirely engaged with the words and music. (By Lauri Eriksson)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

Last week, on the last night of the National Symphony Orchestra's tour of China and Korea, Nigel Boon, the orchestra's director of artistic planning, learned that Mikko Franck was canceling as conductor of last night's season-ending performance at the Kennedy Center. This meant a sleepless night in Seoul for Boon as he hunted for a replacement -- and a rather anticlimactic final concert here, at least in that Franck is supposed to be quite exciting and Andreas Delfs, who replaced him, is merely amiable.

The repertory had to be switched as well. In place of "Manhattan Transfer," by Einojuhani Rautavaara, a Franck specialty, we got "The Walk to the Paradise Garden" from "A Village Romeo and Juliet," by Frederick Delius, which rather than smacking of the contemporary is as sweet and old-fashioned and melodious as its title suggests. In place of Richard Strauss's "Three Hymns" as an NSO debut vehicle for soprano Karita Mattila, we got the better-known "Four Last Songs." On the original program, "Also Sprach Zarathustra" would have been a contrast through its familiarity; on this one, it was much of the same mold that had gone before it, though overall it was a rousing conclusion.

Delfs is a compact, elfin figure who resembles a combination of Siegfried and Roy, and who conducts with some of the slickness such as comparison might evoke. Clearly, late romanticism is his forte, and he approaches it with a lot of surface emotion -- the kinds of mannerisms one instrumentalist of my acquaintance describes as the "I love you" take on classical music -- but not, to my ear, great depth. Another habit of his was slowing to a near stop, but he never built up enough momentum beforehand, and thus the music seemed to very nearly grind to a halt.

Still, this approach left room for an awful lot of prettiness, and the orchestra obliged. It was in any case a bit of a showpiece program, with plenty of solos for everyone -- even associate concertmaster Elizabeth Adkins, who took first-chair duties in the Delius and offered a mellow, almost violaesque solo turn. This piece is tuned dark but comes off clear; for all of its solos on violin and cor anglais, what it projects is a touching naivete that may or may not be deliberately in keeping with its subject.

Mattila has a reputation as an intense and moving performer, something she's established at the Metropolitan Opera in "Fidelio" and "Salome." Even at the Met, she doesn't always seem to know what fits her, and her reading of "Four Last Songs" was a very curious fit indeed. The last-minute switch of repertory may have disappointed her, but these familiar songs cannot have been hard for her to prepare. Yet she seemed curiously detached, swallowing her words and the music. In the beautiful soaring section of the third song, "Beim Schlafengehen," echoing the lyrical solo of concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, she swooped from soft to loud, hitting every high note as if it had an accent, in a manner more dizzying than ethereal. It's a beautiful voice, when you could hear it. I suspect she was trying to rein in what has become a rather sizable instrument for the sake of Strauss's silvery, high-lying vocal lines, but the effect, to me, was somewhat muffled and emotionally distant, although the audience loved it.

"Also Sprach Zarathustra" is one of those works of classical music that is over-familiar to everyone in the room for the first two minutes and rather unknown territory for the following half-hour. Delfs hampered the fail-safe opening by drawing it out so deliberately -- starting with a notably loud sustained note from the double basses -- that it lost some of its effect. By the time the whole orchestra was crying out fortissimo, however, it was impossible not to be touched. The other thing that constantly trips up this orchestra is its tendency not to come in or end quite together, which one hears with many different conductors. Under Delfs, the campy aspects of the piece sometimes came to the fore; the second movement smacked at times of ice-skating music.

But the basses were impressive, scaling down to a growling whisper; the trumpets rang out; the solo strings were rich and full; and, happily, given its decrepit condition (as reported earlier in The Post), the organ worked.

Two NSO musicians, Luis Haza and John Huling, marked their retirement with this final program. It made a spirited send-off.

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