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The NSO Produces Mixed Results on a Night of Emotional Music

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009 1:03 AM

On paper, the National Symphony Orchestra's program Thursday night looked like a good variety of works. There was an unfamiliar 20th-century piece, which counts as "modern" in orchestra parlance: Martinu's "The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca," in its first-ever NSO performance. There was a romantic crowd-pleaser: Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini." And there was a big, important concerto: Brahms's first, in D Minor, a towering work surpassed in scope, in the piano concerto literature, virtually only by Brahms's even longer second one.

In practice, though, the program offered three big orchestral pieces, each of them intense and emotional. It was a lot of Sturm und Drang, making for an evening that was potentially uplifting and also rather draining.

The concert marked the NSO debut of Ludovic Morlot, a French conductor in his 30s who has led a number of the world's major ensembles, particularly the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he served as assistant conductor and still appears frequently. He is a clear conductor but not a flamboyant one. Boyish, even petite, he set the tone for the evening with the Martinu, which aims to create the clear yet spare colors of Piero's palette in bursts of melody emerging from a gentle wash of sound. The balance between bigness and understatement, which the piece sustains, is both an apt evocation of Piero and a good fit for Morlot, who is also clear and not bombastic.

There was, however, a sense of unfulfilled promise. The piece has beautiful moments, particularly the evocative second movement, illustrating Constantine's Dream with fragile, suspended music punctuated by a strong line from solo viola. And anything that shows off the NSO's cello section, like a passage in the third movement that passed to the violins, is a good thing. But the piece, for all its size, is too successful in its restraint.

Restraint is not a problem in the Tchaikovsky, which whips through climax after climax. Morlot wisely paced his forces so that something was saved for the end. Still, the tangles of sound were ultimately less effective in his hands -- or the NSO's -- than the most exquisite part of the piece, a clarinet solo representing Francesca.

The orchestra itself played only decently Thursday night, but its principal players outdid themselves in solo passages all night long. The horn solo in the Brahms was also stunningly beautiful, while concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef offered deep-throated violin commentary on the piano line.

Usually a concerto comes in the middle rather than the end of the program. But usually a concerto is not as symphonic and generously scaled as the Brahms D Minor, which started life as a symphony before Brahms rethought it as a concerto that attempts to put the soloist and the orchestra on an equal footing. Putting any other piece after it would be redundant.

Travel restrictions because of swine flu prevented the scheduled soloist, Nelson Freire, from flying in from Brazil, but the NSO found a fine stand-in in Markus Groh, the first-ever German winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1995, who appeared with the NSO once before, playing Tchaikovsky's First at Wolf Trap in 2002.

Groh is an authoritative, assured player. Brahms may force the piano to struggle to keep its volume at a pace with the orchestra, but here, the soloist helped bring the players around him up a notch after the orchestra gave a disappointingly anemic account of the usually chilling opening. Groh had a couple of dropped notes (but Brahms gives the soloist so very many notes to drop), and in a couple of places his phrasing was not as telling as it might have been; but the latter fact was only notable because, for the most part, he was so supremely sure of where he wanted to go.

The concert repeats Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 1:30.

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