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The NSO erupts with an enjoyable showing of Estonian talent

By Charles Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; C03

The National Symphony Orchestra has two more serious programs this month before surrendering completely to the pops concerts of summer. On one of those programs Thursday night, Estonian talent was on full display.

Guest conductor Kristjan Järvi led a concert anchored on the complex fourth symphony of Erkki-Sven Tüür, who also hails from Järvi's native Estonia.

The work, completed in 2002, began as a concerto commission for Scottish percussion virtuosa Evelyn Glennie but evolved into a one-movement symphonic work with solo percussionist. Glennie, who has been profoundly deaf since age 12, performs in these concerts at the Kennedy Center as part of the 2010 International VSA Festival, sponsored by the International Organization on Arts and Disability.

The opening theme evoked the symphony's subtitle, "Magma," as glissandi spewed through the orchestra over an eructating pedal tone in the contrabassoon. Glowing clusters formed in smears, with embers floating in high woodwind short notes and metallic percussion sparks.

Glennie moved from one set of instruments to the next spread out like an irresistible candy store of whiz-pops, doodads and noisemakers on the apron of the stage, marked off by three large musical sections. Her gyrations at a large drum kit in the second section recalled Tüür's youthful participation in the progressive "chamber rock" band In Spe, complete with a Buddy Rich-style apoplectic solo as a cadenza.

In the third section, the magma flows returned, only for the score to take a detour through a Caribbean-inflected dance, with Glennie on conga drums, culminating in a finale in which she returned to many of the previous instruments.

Järvi had a relaxed manner, preferring playful gestures, broad body movements and humorous looks to a strictly clear beat. That made for some rocky transitions between tempi in Grieg's "Lyric Suite," which opened the concert. With a showman's flair, he helped the orchestra create an undulating, if not really precise, "Shepherd Boy" movement, an ambling stroll for the "Norwegian Rustic March," a seething Romantic rhapsody in the "Nocturne" and a zany, athletic "March of the Dwarves."

The second half turned to lighter fare, beginning with the overture to Bernstein's "Candide" as well as Charlie Harmon's concert suite of music from that operetta. Here Järvi seemed most in his element, content to follow Bernstein through his madcap imitation of styles.

Duke Ellington's "Harlem," which the NSO first played under Leonard Slatkin, was orchestrated by Luther Henderson to be a sort of concerto grosso with Ellington's big band as the solo group. From its opening sneer of dirty, wah-wah trumpet to its upbeat dances and low-down blues section, it made the perfect nightcap.

This concert repeats Friday and Saturday nights at 8 in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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