With New Conductor, NSO Oompahs Through Brahms

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

Perhaps it's due to long years of habit that the National Symphony Orchestra appears to treat its Thursday night concerts like a final dress rehearsal. The opening chords of Brahms's Violin Concerto sounded lackluster, as if the performers weren't fully awake. By the middle of the movement, though, they had all shown up, engaged and present.

Iván Fischer, the orchestra's principal conductor, would never miss out on the start of a piece like that. But on the podium Thursday night was Alexander Vedernikov, making his debut with the orchestra, and -- along with the evening's soloist, violinist Vadim Repin -- a part of the symphony's year-long "Focus on Russia" (something indicated in the program, rather alarmingly, with little crosses, as if marking them deceased).

Vedernikov is an odd bird. Some of his conducting was frankly pedestrian. He has a great big heavy beat that can result in plodding music, and sometimes did. On the other hand, that big beat seemed to be something that the orchestra could follow. Maybe there's something to be said for simplicity.

The level of musical inspiration wasn't always high -- indeed, Vedernikov made Prokofiev, whose Fifth Symphony was the other piece on the program, sound more like Khachaturian, no more than big and splashy. But the orchestra sounded, in many places, healthy and wonderful. It was as if the players were relaxing and saying, "Hey, this we can do!"

One might want a more structured approach for the Brahms, one of the biggest and perhaps greatest concertos in the repertory, but one that can risk miring down without a strong hand to guide it. What Vedernikov brought out was the more ruddy side of Brahms; the final movement, in particular, had traits of Colonel Blimp, with an oompah flavor.

It was left to Repin to provide the finesse. He and the conductor weren't always on the same page; indeed, at the start of the third movement Vedernikov started the music so quickly he even took his soloist by surprise. And Repin, who is all about nuance and artistry, seemed a little uncertain in the context of Vedernikov's approach; he is never showy, but he began here sounding downright muted.

Yet it was his playing that provided the evening's telling details: the aching wistfulness of a double-stopped passage, or the almost tangible form that silence took as it coalesced like rock candy around the filament of a perfect tiny held note, spinning out at the end of the cadenza.

You could say that it wasn't, actually, a very good concert. But it was a rather fun one.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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