An NSO program to wet the whistle

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

For two straight weeks, after an Iván Fischer performance, I've left the Kennedy Center Concert Hall whistling, a tune lodged in my head. Given that I see many concerts that don't inspire the same urge, I give at least some of the credit to Fischer. He has a way with a tune. Of course, it's the composer who dictates when the tune appears, but Fischer gets inside it, flushes it around the ear, tries out different permutations.

The tune that lingered from Thursday night's National Symphony Orchestra concert (repeating Friday night and Saturday) was the final theme from the last movement of Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, put through its paces at the end of a sunny, engaging work that well fit the mood of a generally amiable concert.

This was the orchestra's second consecutive week under Fischer -- rare, because Fischer, in his role as principal guest conductor, is doing only a handful of programs with the orchestra all season. It's probably a pleasant fiction to say that this small bit of continuity makes any real difference in their interaction. But from the opening of this program, "Three Dance Episodes" from Bernstein's "On the Town," the orchestra's playing sounded relaxed, easy and fun -- rather than, as sometimes with Fischer, a little uptight.

With Fischer, you never know what to expect. He's generally good at taut, sinewy openings, but sometimes the emotional line falls flat, as if he were better at being in the moment than getting there. The Bernstein had a lot of appealing sloppiness amid the rhythmic intricacies; the next piece, an arrangement of "Lensky's Aria" from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" for solo cello and orchestra, began with a disparate sound I've come to think of as an "NSO entrance," which has several beginnings and only in the course of the measure gropes toward a sense of unison.

The cellist was the redoubtable Latvian-born Mischa Maisky, 62, arrayed in a shining silk shirt and topped with a bouncing mass of gray hair that often obscured his face as he hunched over his instrument. Don't let the flamboyant looks fool you: Maisky is lionized in Europe, and on Thursday he made some truly gorgeous sounds on the cello. The tone was full-throated, with a slight edge; sometimes slightly off pitch (particularly at the end of Maisky's second piece, Tchaikovsky's "Rococo Variations" -- that cellist's chestnut -- when his fingers danced crazily over the fingerboard), and often lush. Effusive though he was, he wasn't precious. There was a natural openness to his playing that stood in interesting contrast to the performance of the "Rococo Variations" the orchestra gave last September, with Alisa Weilerstein, which sounded a little finicky in comparison.

The Dvorak Eighth is all golden warmth, touched with brass (like the trumpet passage that opens the last movement) and winds (sounding better than they used to). Like many of Fischer's performances, it grew a little sluggish when he wasn't right on top of it: in, for instance, the return of the theme in the third movement, or the start of the dramatic buildup to the conclusion of the fourth. And like many of those same performances, it contained memorable moments: the sculpted final chord of the third movement, or the probing reiterations of that final theme, which after its slow start suddenly dropped to a meditative hush, then developed into a prayer, and then burst out with all the verve it initially seemed to be lacking, sending me whistling out the door.

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