National Symphony Orchestra highlights Russian composers in its concert

SOLOIST: Pianist Denis Matsuev made his NSO debut.
SOLOIST: Pianist Denis Matsuev made his NSO debut. (Andrey Mustafaev)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

"Focus on Russia" is one of the Kennedy Center's initiatives this season, to which the National Symphony Orchestra has paid more or less attention.

On Thursday night, however, the NSO concert was a veritable compendium of Mother Russia's Greatest Hits: Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, prefaced with a piece called "Requiem for Icarus" by Lera Auerbach. The soloist, too, was Russian: Denis Matsuev, making his debut with the orchestra. The young conductor, James Gaffigan, also making his NSO debut, was the only non-Russian in the bunch.

Auerbach offered a fine introduction, with her strong piece and with well-written, personal program notes for all three pieces. "Requiem for Icarus" has the emotional colorings one might expect: Opening with a strident, sinister tread of brass, it pulls back into a keening passage for solo violin, and maintains a requiem-appropriate juxtaposition of dread, darkness and mourning.

Most striking was how Auerbach expanded the color palette of the orchestra, adding the wordless vocalise of a theremin, or the sharp, shivering line of a glass harmonica. That expansion was in no way confrontational: Auerbach was adding new colors to a familiar instrument, as if writing for a 12-fingered pianist or enhancing a snapshot on a computer so all the images sprang into relief. After the last violin solo died away, a haze of theremin and bass remained, like the ghost of a picture on a shut-off TV.

The opening of the Rachmaninoff was no less exact: Matsuev touched each chord with thoughtful precision, enhancing the piece's effect of approaching from a great distance and bearing down upon listeners. He is quite a player, for whom technique is no object, but who also understands Rachmaninoff is most effective when played without goopiness. Matsuev didn't shy away from laying on plenty of pedal; and he lingered over the notes, coming in on the back end of the beat. But he also demonstrated a basic sobriety: Rather than pathos, he played with emphasis; rather than banging, he kept sight of the core of the music, so the loud, showy passages were organically, sonically related to the quiet ones, with the same warm core of sound. That slightly drier approach allowed the music to show colors and dimensions that are frequently obscured.

To follow up that fundamentally tasteful performance, he offered a dessert of an encore that was pure, delightful fluff -- his own arrangement of "Largo al factotum" from "The Barber of Seville," showing breathtaking virtuosity, a keen awareness of the original vocal line and slapstick humor worthy of Bugs Bunny.

Gaffigan is a rising star, the newly appointed (last month) chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. He showed the talent and the room for growth one might expect, or even hope for, in a young artist. He had a lot of energy without getting carried away. Entrances, so often a weak point with this orchestra, were firm; his tempos quick. He avoided the goop as well, and his feeling for timbre was excellent; the orchestra was showcased time and again, starting in the first movement's second theme with the sinuous rivulets of winds that keep darting down the surface of the music.

The weakness was that the brisk, unsentimental approach sometimes kept the music from making its full effect. In the first two movements of the Tchaikovsky, there were some payoffs that didn't quite deliver -- the recapitulation of the blazing trumpet theme in the first movement; a full-bodied descending string phrase that he broke up a little too literally, following the letter of the score but not entirely its spirit, in the second.

At times, all the different things going on didn't quite come together. And the forward propulsion sometimes meant that the shape of the music was blurred -- at one point, literally, when his evident demand for an immediate, ferocious transition into the fourth movement led to the players executing a rapid, audible page-turn that clashed with the end of the third. But the exhilaration of the fourth movement, with its exuberant cymbal crashes and general loud noise, was a better symbol of an evening that offered a lot to like.

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