The largest crowd in Wolf Trap's 13-year history -- 7,250 paying customers -- turned out in idyllic weather Saturday night for the National Symphony's annual all-Tchaikovsky bacchanal, under Hugh Wolff.
And there were more besides. "We told the people we couldn't let in that they were welcome to stay if they wanted to go out on the meadows, where they could hear the performance but not see it," said a box office official.
Fortunately, it was the kind of music that carries -- especially the literally explosive "1812" Overture with its 16 live Lyle cannons (pointed away from the audience), its pealing bells and three separate brass choirs all blasting away at the end. The concert always ends with the "1812."
Listeners were spread on blankets as far away as the edge of the Dulles Access Road. And the official lawn area inside the Filene Center was utterly jammed. "If this keeps happening," said a Wolf Trap spokesman, "we're going to have to put limits on people's blanket spaces." Parking overflowed the lots into a neighboring subdivision, and onto the Dulles road's entrance ramp.
Like Fourth of July fireworks, the "1812" Overture (which commemorates the Russian victory over Napoleon) works better outside than inside. Tchaikovsky wrote it for the out-of-doors, at the dedication in the Kremlin of the Cathedral of the Redeemer.
Esthetes have tended to look down on the work, and none more so than that compulsive esthete, Tchaikovsky himself. But for a century and two years it has been one of the half dozen or so most popular orchestral pieces. And Saturday night's concert gave further proof why: 7,250 zealous listeners can't be all wrong.
This performance was stunning. If there is any single work the orchestra knows by heart, after all these years under Mstislav Rostropovich, this is it. And it benefited further in this concert with the uncommon ability of Wolff to keep together large orchestral forces.
Tempos were taut, textures crystal clear, ensemble virtually perfect, and, most of all, it was full of passion. The brass, especially, were superbly coordinated -- in part, no doubt, a result of the new Filene Center's better acoustics.
Wolff, the orchestra's associate conductor, plays it like he believes in it, and he and the orchestra lavished just as much care on its effects as they did on the profundities of the Beethoven Ninth two nights earlier.
In the Fourth Symphony and the "Romeo and Juliet" Overture-Fantasy, though, there were signs of fatigue in the playing. And well there should have been. For three nights in a row, the orchestra had played a different program each night at Wolf Trap, each with very limited rehearsal. Maybe there once was a time when it was okay for music in the outdoors to be prepared this way. But in the new Filene Center, it is fair neither to the audience, the players, the conductor nor the composers.
The Fourth, in Wolff's first performance of the work, was especially fine in the initial movements. In fact, the plaintive second movement was a model of how it should be done. Wolff rejected the common habit of milking those sad Russian melodies of every ounce of intensity. Dynamics were held down, the interaction of the winds and the strings was faultless, and as a result, the music's essential simplicity was never violated.
The introduction and basic themes on the opening movement were laid out lucidly, but with less intensity than is sometimes heard. Then during the development section the performance really began to surge. Wolff capped it off with a stunning version of the end where he (correctly, in my opinion) joined the final brass fanfares to that crushing last reference to the main theme, without the usual break.
The two latter movements both had articulation problems. It's especially hard to play the finale at such a fast pace without lots of preparation, though Wolff's tempo is the way I think the movement should be played.
"Romeo and Juliet" also had its moments, especially from the fortissimo string statement of the love theme to the end. Otherwise, articulation sometimes failed.