music review

Jennifer Higdon with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center

Pianist Yuja Wang shined in the world premiere performance.
Pianist Yuja Wang shined in the world premiere performance. (Kennedy Center)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

It's not often that a brand-new work is the most crowd-pleasing element on an orchestral program, but it happened Thursday night at the National Symphony Orchestra's concert.

The main event of this week's program was the world premiere of the first piano concerto by Jennifer Higdon, whose work is fairly familiar to NSO regulars; this was, the conductor Andrew Litton said in some onstage remarks, the fifth work of hers the orchestra has performed. However familiar her work, it's commendable for the orchestra to commission (or be able to commission, thanks to the Hechinger Commissioning Fund) a full-length, half-hour piano concerto rather than the five- or 10-minute curtain-raiser that too often represents the "contemporary" component of many orchestras' programming. Higdon upheld her end of the bargain by producing a big, meaty, somewhat discursive concerto that offered a lot to listen to, and a lot you wanted to hear.

It didn't hurt that she had a crack soloist. Litton asked the composer how she got her music performed so much; one only partly facetious answer might be that she teaches at the Curtis Institute and thus works with some of the best young soloists in the country. Yuja Wang, 22, is a thoroughly modern young Curtis graduate who updates her own Twitter account ("Had a dozen oysters at old ebbitt grill in washington DC," reads Thursday's entry), just hauled in a Grammy nomination this week for her debut solo album on Deutsche Grammophon, and can play anything you put in front of her, as she has already demonstrated to NSO audiences with her appearance in the Prokofiev Second Concerto earlier this year.

Higdon, who has a knack for tailoring pieces to her soloists, took advantage of this talent by having the piano play almost without cease for the entire concerto. It was a rare thing when the keyboard was actually silent.

Indeed, there were some shades of Prokofiev in a heavy martial brassy passage in the first movement, though that may have been partly the doing of Litton, who is partial to the Russian repertory and who led two other Russian pieces (a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Snow Maiden" and Tchaikovsky's first symphony) on this program. There was even a shade of a Russian flavor in the big, warm string melodies that Higdon pulled out from time to time.

But a Russian concerto bristles with pyrotechnics, and the piano part here showed a different kind of virtuosity. If it had a flaw, it was that it was so constant it almost paled through a kind of sameness: Clusters of rapid notes yielded again and again to rapid sliding glissandos, light-fingered and evanescent, like the cluster of ripples that changing breezes send across the surface of reflecting water.

The complex coordination of piano and orchestra didn't always sound perfect, though the third movement, in which the soloist interacts with an intricate and sometimes almost cartoonlike battery of percussion, was done well; but the piece gave one so much to listen to that it flew by, and left one wanting to hear it again, which is no mean feat for a brand-new work.

Litton is an appealing figure on stage; he handled the Q&A with the composer well enough that the cliches sounded fresh ("new music is looked upon as Brussels sprouts") and Higdon was able to sound genuine. And he brings the same kind of breezy likability and energy to his conducting: He is good at making lovely sounds and whipping up the orchestra.

What's missing is the sense of why he's doing it: The pretty sounds can become like empty gestures around a hollow core, an Emperor's New Clothes of hollow phrasing and noncommunication. But in the Tchaikovsky, at moments like the second-movement theme, singing out in the cellos (always an NSO strength) and then brandished by the horns, or the grandeur and frenzy of the final bars, the attractive surface is reason enough.

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