National Symphony Orchestra performance at Kennedy Center falls short

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; C08

Iván Fischer, the National Symphony Orchestra's principal conductor, came to Washington on Thursday night hot off of what, by all accounts, was an intriguing, invigorating series in New York last weekend. Over four concerts at Lincoln Center, he presented the complete symphonies of Beethoven -- half on modern instruments (with his Budapest Festival Orchestra), half on period ones (with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment).

A week later with the NSO, he has a chance to apply even more ideas about early performance practice. On the program, in time for Easter, was Bach's splendid Mass in B-minor, which Fischer played with a select, smaller-than-usual group of NSO players in a seating arrangement unusual today (winds at the front, before the strings) and the University of Maryland Concert Choir. Unfortunately, this performance wasn't intriguing or invigorating. Rather, it seemed clinical, as if Fischer was approaching the piece with a lot of ideas, but without the heart he so abundantly shows elsewhere.

With this orchestra, Fischer seems to have trouble getting his ideas across effectively. His ideas about this piece seemed to involve Bach's intricacy: the mechanical, technical side of the composer's brilliance. He conducted the whole thing at nearly the same tempo, as if to emphasize the through line and unity of a work that was composed in pieces at different times over Bach's career and was probably never heard in its entirety during his lifetime. Rather than binding it together, however, that only made the piece monochromatic, forcing emotion to take second place to technique.

That was doubly unfortunate, because the technical side wasn't all that great.

It's true that the cellos, always the heart of the orchestra, brought verve and vitality to the continuo line and that some of the instrumental solos that give distinct color to the individual arias were quite fine -- particularly the violin solo in "Laudamus te," for soprano, or the oboe d'amore in the alto solo "Qui sedes," which sang out with lyrical flair. But in general, the orchestra didn't have the kind of crispness that would have helped Fischer make a more convincing case for his restrained approach. And the student chorus, while it sang with conviction -- each section on its own distinct set of risers, then dividing into two antiphonal choruses for the "Osanna" -- was, through no fault of its own, not quite at a professional level.

Dominique Labelle, one of the leading early-music sopranos around (and heard earlier here this year in Opera Lafayette's "Armide"), sounded generally beautiful, with an unexpectedly rich low register.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux offered a more operatic approach to the alto solos than Fischer might have opted for, thereby showing herself to better advantage than Thomas E. Bauer, the baritone, whose obedience to the conductor's restraint muted his first solo to the point of absolute ineffectiveness, though he recovered for a fine "Et in Spiritum Sanctum."

And Michael Slattery offered a straight tenor sound that had a certain tenderness without sounding altogether easy.

Fischer is good at endings. However pale an individual movement might have been, he shaped the final chords so they shimmered and hung in the air, perfectly tuned, with all the beauty that had been missing from what went before. And he seemed to conceive of the piece as symphonic, trying to build to a real emotional wallop at the end. One result was that the "Crucifixus etiam" and the "Et resurrexit," which should be the heart of the piece, were neither gripping nor differentiated -- the one lugubrious, the other anodyne.

He saved the rousing moments for the antiphonal "Osanna," and then tried to make the "Dona nobis pacem" a worthy conclusion. It's not, however, the strongest movement of the Mass, and therefore the drama of the final chords, and the long extended silence afterward, felt like much ado about a rather disappointing evening.

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