Anne Midgette reviews the National Symphony Orchestra, Joshua Bell, Hugh Wolff

EASY DOES IT: Joshua Bell.
EASY DOES IT: Joshua Bell. (Business Wire)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

The National Symphony Orchestra offered a kind of yin-and-yang travelogue Thursday night, contrasting two pieces about Scotland with one about Spain. The evening's draw was the violinist Joshua Bell, the soloist in Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole," actually a long violin concerto that calls for exactly Bell's blend of virtuosity and insouciance. But the evening's strength was the conductor, Hugh Wolff, an urbane host who without undue Sturm und Drang made Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, the composer's third, an absolute delight.

Ringing bells opened the program: the celebratory or spare flourish introducing James MacMillan's tone poem "Í (A Meditation on Iona)" for strings and percussion. The piece has high aims and high seriousness, setting out to evoke the windswept landscape, long history and religious aura of the Scottish island that's its subject, and sometimes falling into rather obvious modes of expression to do so: hushed growling strings sneaking up on sudden leaps of "gotcha" from the percussion, or the violins rising and falling like wheeling birds. Meditation was the right word: The piece was a little too long and a little too ruminative to be an effective curtain-raiser.

Lalo's piece was written for the virtuoso violinist Sarasate, with lots of leaps and fast fingerwork dancing through a passel of lilting tunes of local color. This is a sunny, lighthearted Spain, a picture Bell can adorn with no trouble: He is a master of artless lyricism. His program biography describes his "restless curiosity," and the restless part certainly comes across in the way he seems not quite to linger over his notes, tossing them off as if eager to get on to the next thing. It's a hallmark of every virtuoso to make the difficult seem easy, but Bell's ease extends to the brink of carelessness; the notes were all there, but didn't always sing out from their core, whisked away before they had fully come to life. For some, this will be a quibble: Bell was sweet of tone (when he allowed himself to be) and fleet of finger, and the piece is certainly amiable.

The evening's highlight, though, came after the intermission with the Mendelssohn symphony. Wolff, vaguely Mendelssohnian in his slight, fine-featured appearance, is the opposite of Bell in that he stays always at the heart of the music; after a couple of weeks of clumsy phrasing from other conductors, it was a pleasure to hear music so ably shaped, starting with the proto-Wagnerian introduction to the first movement and continuing with the springy elasticity of its second theme.

Wolff (who was associate conductor of the orchestra under Rostropovich) kept a brisk but unobtrusive pace, barely pausing between movements yet never leaving any question where in the piece one was; the longest rest came in the moments before the final coda, and so absolute was his control by then that he held the whole auditorium in suspended silence.

The orchestra played not flawlessly, but on the whole very well; the violins sang ravishingly in the third movement, and the cellos later reprised the theme with a richness that gave it emphatic finality.

The concert will repeat Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 1:30.

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