Lorin Maazel Lends Technical Strengths to NSO Concert

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg soloed.
Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg soloed. (By Grant Leighton)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

It's a truism that conductors and orchestras have very individual relationships: A conductor who doesn't shine with one orchestra may prove to excel with another. That adage was certainly borne out by the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night under Lorin Maazel.

In the past, I have often been critical of Maazel's clinically precise, micromanaged approach, which often, to my ear, reduced his concerts with the New York Philharmonic to mere superficiality. But a brilliant technician like Maazel is just what the NSO needs. Here's the headline about Thursday's concert: The orchestra played together, and who cares, for once, about everything else. Reveling during the opening piece, Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," in the crisp entrances, the taut pauses, and the sense of ensemble, all so rare from these players, and yet clearly within their reach, I was happy to worship Maazel as a god.

Maazel has certainly been emerging in benevolent form of late, and the Washington area is getting some of the benefits of his retirement from the New York Philharmonic: the valuable new summer opera and training festival at his home in Rappahannock County, or the open rehearsal he is leading on Saturday with the D.C. Youth Orchestra. In a similar vein, though written 11 years ago, was the piece he composed that's featured on the current NSO program: a setting of Shel Silverstein's children's book "The Giving Tree" for orchestra, solo cello and narrator.

The piece seems an odd pairing of simple subject and sophisticated artistry, because Maazel, as composer, heaps all the orchestral largesse at his disposal on this gentle plot. But one can see the material's appeal: Open-hearted but with a wry adult twist, the text actually matches music that is subtly crafted (the range of nuances on the idea of "happy," as painted by Maazel's orchestra, is impressive) but also naive in its adherence to a full-bodied tonal romanticism, however sprinkled with dissonant touches. It also offered a chance to hear David Hardy, the NSO's principal cellist, in the expressive solo part; while Dietlinde Turban Maazel, an actress and the conductor's wife, read the story with an air of experience. (The couple have three children.)

It's not an enduring work, and performing it may have represented a gesture toward Maazel, or an inducement to him, on the orchestra's part. Yet "The Giving Tree" also fit well on a program that was all about big, beautiful and slightly naive music: It included, as well as the Mussorgsky, the Barber Violin Concerto, and C├ęsar Franck's Symphony in D Minor. The blowsiness of the works may even have been an antidote to Maazel's tendency, as a conductor, toward emotional reserve.

Another antidote was Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the violin soloist in the Barber, who is hyper-expressive and refreshingly down-to-earth. She is eminently communicative and something of a team player; her sound tended more to blend with the orchestra than to pierce it. Unfortunately her playing is not very attractive, and can verge on the sloppy; on the other hand, it offered telling moments, growing her tone from a muted piano to a fortissimo that showed she can be heard when she wants to be. The piece itself is so ardent that it's hard to resist, and the orchestra was an emphatic accompanist.

It's possible to wax enthusiastic and still not love the evening. There were some dry stretches; and some moments when it seemed the orchestra could have used more emotional involvement (it seems to be a needy orchestra, this NSO). Franck's symphony is eminently long-winded, especially coming at the end of an ample yet slightly insubstantial program. I didn't mind, though, because I was enjoying the details so much: the resounding reverberations at the close of the first movement; the hair-trigger opening of the second; the contained passages of quiet playing, with supreme dynamic control in the shadings between very soft and slightly louder, in the third. If only the NSO could sound like this more often.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday nights at 8.

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