"Tonight, this is the hottest ticket in town," Douglas Wheeler announced from the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall before last night's concert.
The managing director of the Washington Performing Arts Society was making a pitch for subscriptions to WPAS' next season. But there was a fair measure of truth in his self-serving statement.
The orchestra was the excellent Saint Louis Symphony, with music director Leonard Slatkin conducting and the phenomenal 16-year-old Japanese violinist Midori. And the Concert Hall was filled to capacity.
One might like to think that John Harbison's evocative, colorful Symphony No. 2 was the main attraction for the standing-room audience -- and, to be sure, there was enthusiastic applause for the composer when he came on to take a bow. It was a rather daring decision -- to begin a concert with a substantial and difficult piece of new music. And the boldness of Slatkin's choice was rewarded in a performance full of freshness and vitality, as well as a highly positive reaction.
But in comparison, the applause for Midori, after she finished Tchaikovsky's technically and emotionally challenging Violin Concerto, was absolutely explosive. There was even applause after the first movement -- a kind of interruption of the music's continuity that is often bothersome. Last night it did not seem out of place; Midori deserved that kind of recognition. Her performance was poised, expressively phrased and technically brilliant. She plays with an economy of motion that is as beautiful to see as to hear, and she is as strong in the slow movement (usually the last style mastered by young players) as anywhere else. She is emphatically not a gee-whiz technician eager to break the record for notes per second, although she probably could. She is clearly aware that the pace and breathing of a human voice should always be clearly fixed in an instrumentalist's mind.
Harbison's symphony, with movements labeled "Dawn," "Daylight," "Dusk" and "Darkness," shows a mastery of orchestration and striking, original structural ideas. This tight-packed score invites repeated attention and needs more than one hearing to communicate everything it contains. But the first Washington performance last night left a strong impression.
In a sense, the conceptual keystone of the concert was Stravinsky's "Petrushka." This music has its roots in the world of Tchaikovsky and looks ahead to the world of Harbison. It was the most effective showcase on the program for Slatkin's outstanding orchestra. His interpretation was notable for carefully controlled and balanced vigor. The coloristic elements in the music were brilliantly exploited, with two drummers stationed above and behind the audience at the back corners of the first tier.