Music review

NSO and Valcuha come through loud and soft an clear

Instrumental to success: Jennifer Koh came through strongly on the Szymanowski First Violin Concerto.
Instrumental to success: Jennifer Koh came through strongly on the Szymanowski First Violin Concerto. (Janette Beckman)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

Since new, young conductors were a theme of the National Symphony Orchestra's 2009-10 season, it was fitting that the orchestra wrapped its regular subscription season in style Thursday night under the baton of a 30-something Slovakian, Juraj Valcuha.

Valcuha has conducted at many a big institution in Europe (the Bavarian State Opera, the Dresden Staatskapelle), fewer in the United States (the Pittsburgh Symphony, for one), and now has made a strong NSO debut.

Great musicmaking isn't always flashy. Valcuha's gift is emotional specificity, and that sometimes expressed itself most eloquently in quiet ways. Haydn's 85th Symphony, "La Reine," emerged with the clarity of restraint, like a drypoint etching, the orchestra making entrances together in sharp, precise lines (though clean entrances are not something to take for granted with this particular ensemble). The crispness extended to pauses of pin-drop silence, clear as glass.

Valcuha brought out all the contrasts in the music, giving equal weight to silences and climaxes of crackling electricity. But the program itself was also one of great contrasts, traveling a large emotional distance from Haydn's engaging discourse to the heart-on-the-sleeve outpouring of the Szymanowski First Violin Concerto.

Szymanowski might be unfamiliar to many listeners, but he isn't exactly "new music"; this piece was written in 1916. It's big and warm and markedly sensual, oozing with brass and winds and singing, soaring lines for the solo violin, now rising above the orchestra, now tangled in a duet with the concertmaster. Jennifer Koh's brand of healthy, athletic playing proved a great fit for the piece: She caressed its beauties without wallowing in them, keeping the muscle in a work that could easily be cloying.

Szymanowski, though, isn't merely sticking to a safe Late Romantic vocabulary. Rather, you get the rich colors and fractured episodes of Kandinsky's contemporaneous paintings, complete with unexpected twists, like the ending -- which carries the violin up to a high peak before vanishing, as if it had run off into the ether, punctuated by a nearly inaudible plunk from the basses.

The final piece was the Mahler First, a world of contrast in itself; and Valcuha came into his own like a Shakespearean actor. He's not in the least melodramatic; rather, like a good actor, he seems to have envisioned what he's going for at each moment so completely that there are no empty passages in his delivery; every measure had content. He thus led a clear path through Mahler's frequent changes of mind and mood without bogging down in individual episodes, always keeping in mind the fact that the piece is ultimately going somewhere.

The first movement built, therefore, from an almost imperceptible opening, soft sound born of soft silence, to lightning-strike power at the end of the first movement, juxtaposed with a silence that crackled no less than the forte that preceded it. The long minor-key "Frere Jacques" episode that starts the third movement yielded to a melody that sounded almost parodically lugubrious, with a sob, possibly unintentional, in the brass.

Although Valcuha couldn't prevent some brass stumbles, he also got some very good brass playing, from the offstage trumpets at the start of the piece to the muted trombones that sounded through the chaos of the final movement -- like a promise of relief on the horizon.

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