It is always a special event when Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra play Shostakovich or Prokofiev. Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall the special quality of the occasion was compounded in a program devoted entirely to Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony and excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet"--two of the things this orchestra and conductor do best. Rostropovich was a friend of both composers, and the special quality of his feeling for them emerges clearly in the way he interprets their music.
The performance was spectacular, but that was only the beginning of its appeal. Both works abound in moments of awesome power and hectic, frenetic grandeur. The sheer pyrotechnics of Tybalt's death scene in "Romeo and Juliet" is one example, and another is the brawling, bellicose brilliance of the fight scene titled "Montagues and Capulets."
There are innumerable passages in the Shostakovich where overwhelming forces are massed to crush the symphony's protagonist who is, in the composer's own words, "a man with all his experiences." At such moments, Rostropovich drove the orchestra to awesome heights of disciplined power, and the effect was overwhelming. But some of the light, quiet moments were among the most intense in the program: the gradual building of tension in the slow movements of the Shostakovich, or the slow fade to silence at the end of Romeo's death scene.
The full orchestra playing fortissimo had a devastating impact with thunder and lightning in the percussion and shouts of pain and anger in the brass and woodwinds. But the magic moments often came when a quiet solo rose out of a hushed orchestral texture, or when the music's tone shifted from heavy drama to pure lyricism, as in Prokofiev's portayal of the young Juliet.
It was an evening of tragic music, but the tragedy was heightened and intensified by the superb treatment of the passages of lightness and grace. Technically, the orchestra played in top form throughout the evening.
In the manner made familiar by countless pop and country musicians, the National Symphony in this concert was featuring music from its latest album--the recent Deutsche Grammophon recordings of the Shostakovich Fifth and the two Prokofiev suites from "Romeo and Juliet." Tables were set up in the Grand Foyer outside the concert hall, and copies of the albums were sold briskly. A few feet away, Rostropovich sat at another table during intermission happily autographing hundreds of albums, while a line stretched down toward the Opera House waiting patiently for his signature long past the normal span of an intermission, confident that none of the music would be missed while the maestro had a pen in his hand rather than a baton. When he resumed conducting after the intermission, Rostropovich showed no sign of fatigue, although it had hardly been a period of rest for him.
The records sold and autographed contained essentially the same performances that were presented Saturday night in the Concert Hall. The Prokofiev record contains a bit more of his music to compensate for the absence of the expert narrative, with copious quotations from Shakespeare, that was spoken by Paul Hume during the concert, but even with the marvels of digital recording technology, the evening had some elements that cannot be contained on a record. There was an electricity in the air, a special emotion generated by Rostropovich's gestures as well as the orchestra's sound. And in that sound there were often moments of power and glory that no loudspeaker can manage to reproduce. Still, a record is a handy and treasurable reminder of such events--like a photo one might take of the Grand Canyon to help revive memories of the actual experience.