How many, oh how many, all-Beethoven programs must one endure? Given their box office popularity -- confirmed once again yesterday evening by the large audience at Wolf Trap for the National Symphony's Beethoven concert -- one fears they will repeat themselves endlessly, sounding into the mists of infinity.
In most cases, performance is almost irrelevant, unless the conductor should fall into the pits or the timpanist split a kettle drum. No such thing happened last night and the more's the pity, for it was an evening of unrelieved tedium (never mind the bravos at the end). When Ludwig is involved, one suspects the music could be mimed and there would still be cheers. Conductor Hugh Wolff proved earnest and conscientious throughout the "Prometheus" ballet excerpts, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Seventh Symphony. He deserves credit for keeping the orchestra under control with clear direction and a clean balance, but as for meaning, magic, a point of view -- these were nonexistent.
Perhaps they will be there one day. Right now, however, Wolff is unable to achieve the graceful phrasing and subtly varied pulse which form the cornerstone of the classical style. The secrets of structure as yet elude him, and the results last night were one block of notes after another, never linked to form a larger hole.
Much the same could be said of soloist Russell Sherman's performance in the Fourth Piano Concerto. Though the notes were in place, they added up to nothing beyond the most immediate communication. Sherman's opening statement, in which the solo piano should convey the lyrical character of the concerto, was both tonally uneven and expressively empty. A hard touch substituted for inner force, and tempos were often eratically bent to the point of losing all tension. The many genuine opportunities to broaden into a glowing, expansive approach were consistently missed, both by Sherman and conductor Wolff.
Unless one has the good fortune to be distracted by sipping and supping on the lawn, the closing Seventh Symphony seemed to plod along interminably, afflicted by the evening's prevailing problems as well as some raw sounds and ragged entrances. Infinity seemed high.