High energy was the prevailing mode in the National Symphony Orchestra's first concert of the new year, last night at the Kennedy Center: youthful energy in Mozart's Symphony No. 28 in C (K. 200); exuberant, nationalistic energy in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 in C Minor ("Little Russian"); balanced and tightly controlled energy in Samuel Adler's impressive Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, which received its world premiere with Bradford Gowen as soloist.
Guest conductor Myung-Whun Chung directed the orchestra ably through a program in three sharply contrasting styles. But he was most impressive in the Tchaikovsky -- one of the composer's most consistently happy and objective works.
Adler's concerto did not feel out of place on a program with Tchaikovsky and Mozart. All three pieces, in a sense, showed a composer mastering a form relatively new to him. Even though the simple, festive Mozart symphony is numbered as his 28th, it is probably only the third of his mature works in the form -- "mature" meaning that he composed it in his late teens.
Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony (which he revised after composing his Fourth) is recognizable as his work from the soulful opening phrases to the headlong finale. It is a constantly inventive work, particularly appealing in its loving use of folk melodies. Chung and the orchestra interpreted it with power and precision. Special mention should be given to the horns, which had some of the finest moments in both the Mozart and the Tchaikovsky.
Adler, a skilled and prolific composer, has written several previous works in the concerto medium, but this is his first piano concerto in the standard three-movement form. It is tailored precisely to the musical strengths of Gowen, for whom it was commissioned after he won first prize in the 1978 Kennedy Center/Rockefeller Foundation Competition. The soloist must have a formidable technique, and Gowen has it; he was a complete master of the intricate, powerful music assigned to him. The orchestra sounded powerful but was not always precise in its ensemble playing. This should improve in repeat performances as the music becomes more familiar.
The concerto's style is essentially Romantic, but it has a cutting edge of modernism in its harmonies and orchestration. There is a strong focus on emotional statement and often a high level of tension: between the soloist and orchestra, between tonal and nontonal elements in the music, between lyric impulses and expressions of sheer power. This tension is epitomized in the contrast between the two feverish outer movements and the (on the whole) gentle, lyrical slow movement -- an elegy for the composer's late mother, which draws thematic material from a lullaby composed by his father.