NSO offers a gala pleasingly out of the ordinary

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Imagine a standard-issue bakery cake, embellished with thick white frosting, and you have your typical orchestral gala: a sugary-sweet confection. Now imagine slicing into that cake and finding, instead of your typical white crumb glued together with standard-issue icing, the creation of a fine French pastry chef, and you have the National Symphony Orchestra's final concert of the season, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, on Tuesday night.

It was still fun to eat, but it was a lot more substantial and nuanced than such things usually are.

Your standard gala -- like, for instance, the one that opened the orchestra's 2009-10 season last September -- features lots of short fun pieces from the lighter side of the repertory: opera overtures and interludes, sections of tone poems. Tuesday's gala chose Ravel to represent the idea of lightness and fun. But while Ravel wrote music that was sometimes on a small scale and is often beloved by audiences ("Bolero" comes to mind), he is not a cheap thrill: His music is dazzlingly inventive. Tuesday's all-Ravel first half, with "Alborada del gracioso," the suite from "Ma mère l'oye" (Mother Goose) and the "Rapsodie espagnole" offered more thoughts and ideas and timbres in a short span of time than many entire programs.

Your standard gala also offers a star soloist, and Tuesday night obligingly offered Yo-Yo Ma, one of the most beloved figures in the classical music world (the roar of excitement that rose from the audience at his entrance, after the intermission, was touching). But though Ma welcomes the affection, he doesn't trade on it. He could have played a short virtuosic showcase and abundantly filled the bill. Instead, he performed "Azul," effectively a concerto in which the cello shares solo honors with two percussionists and a hyperaccordion (a regular accordion with electronic special effects), which Osvaldo Golijov wrote for him in 2006 and revised extensively a year later. It was long, thoughtful, different and real: anything but an easy star showpiece.

Galas aren't always led by big-name conductors. Jeffrey Kahane, the conductor/pianist, is a familiar quantity; he offered a lot of energy, a clear beat and an impressive ability to keep the orchestra together coupled with an ability to get the musicians to play very loud. He was great at rhythm, marshaling downright funkiness in some of the Spanish dances of the "Rapsodie espagnole," though with a hint of instability that was now exhilarating, keeping things driving forward, and now dislocating, as if the music were about to fall apart.

The final difference from the standard-issue gala was the genuine, shouting excitement of the standing ovations.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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