In its Russian roots, NSO finds new ground

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011

If there's one thing the National Symphony Orchestra has been known for doing well, it's Russian music. At least since the tenure of Mstislav Rostropovich as music director, the works of Shostakovich, in particular, have been a staple.

So it's quite something to see a mainly Russian program, with artists from the former Soviet Union, introduce as many things that are wholly new to the orchestra - including a Shostakovich violin concerto that the NSO had never played before - as the first subscription concert of 2011, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, did Thursday night.

Technically, "Russian" is a misnomer for three of the program's four innovations. The conductor, Kirill Karabits, a 34-year-old of boyish build who was making his NSO debut, is Ukrainian.

So is the composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose "Elegy for Strings" at the start of the program had its first-ever NSO performance. It's an icy, somber piece, with a dull wistfulness to the rising, floating, suspended layers of sound, like sentence fragments left unfinished. It was written in memory of Karabits's father, Ivan, also a conductor, who started the sketch for the piece, which Silvestrov finished in 2000 (the elder Karabits died in 2002). Rather than coming to the NSO with a bang, Karabits came with a personal, even intimate touch.

And violinist Sergey Khachatryan - the soloist in the Shostakovich, who was also making his NSO debut - is not Russian, either, but Armenian. It was a belated debut, in that Khachatryan has been fairly high-profile since he won the Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium in 2005, when he was 20; he has played with most of the world's big orchestras and made several recordings, including quite a good one of both Shostakovich concertos with Kurt Masur.

Eminently Russian, though, is Shostakovich's second violin concerto. And though it consistently stands in the shadow of the first, it's a worthy piece. It's rather surprising that Rostropovich, for all his open veneration of and personal friendship with Shostakovich, never programmed it at the NSO. It might not be as great as the first one, but being lighter and more intimate, with its own burlesque turns and sardonic twists interrupting and sometimes tripping up its mood of elegy, it has its own charms.

They were certainly evident Thursday. Khachatryan, now 25, has the kind of insouciant assurance that makes listening almost a guilty pleasure, with a tone like a stream of honey-colored oil, rich and smooth. If he had a fault, it was in making the piece too beautiful. All the sardonic twists, the anxious probing of a melody in a kind of echolalia at the end of the first movement, or the nose-thumbing exchange between violin and horns that starts the third, became elegant gestures, as if Shostakovich's lines were being choreographed by a dancer rather than hurled out with the rawness of a Method actor. Khachatryan certainly isn't alone in removing some of the angst from Shostakovich in performance - perhaps it's inevitable as the composer becomes more a historical figure and less a living voice raised in protest against a state that no longer exists.

The beauty of Khachatryan's playing was far from inexpressive, though. There was special poignancy to the solo cadenza in the second movement, when the violin grabs attention and then seems to half-forget what to do with it; wisps of a lower voice wafted across the bottom strings, coming in and out of focus against the melody of the top. The mellowness of his tone was a nice balance to the horns, which are a strong conversation partner in this piece, though the NSO's horns couldn't always hold up their end of the exchange. Still, it was a strong performance and seemed genuinely to please the audience.

If the first theme of the evening was geography, the second, perhaps more lyrical theme was that of lighter and less-known pieces by familiar composers. The Shostakovich concerto was followed by Sibelius's first symphony, younger and leaner than his later symphonies, opening with a cool clarinet solo over a dark wind of percussion and blossoming from this into full-blown Romantic ardor.

Karabits, once the associate conductor at Ivan Fischer's Budapest Festival Orchestra, is one of several young conductors from the former Soviet Union currently leading British orchestras (his is the Bournemouth Symphony) who are attracting attention. There were a few glitches Thursday, but overall, he led a performance with the energy and interest to show that he deserves it.

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