The Kennedy Center Concert Hall was more than half empty at the beginning of last night's National Symphony Orchestra concert and considerably less full by the time it ended -- a fairly standard reaction of mainstream Washington audiences to a world premiere.
Nobody should be forced to listen to music he hates, and those who waited until halfway through Vyacheslav Artyomov's symphony, "On the Threshold of a Bright World," before walking out deserve credit for at least giving the music a chance. But some people liked the Artyomov symphony as heartily as others hated it. While the final chords were still hovering in the air (a massive climax followed by an impressive fade to silence), there were shouts of approval and a standing ovation.
"On the Threshold of a Bright World" is written in a post-Varese style that is currently unfashionable among American composers. But it is a valid style for some purposes, and it seems suited for this symphony's role as Part 2 of the gigantic, still unfinished tetralogy: "Symphony of the Way." Artyomov uses a massive orchestra, including organ, piano and a lot of brass and percussion, with great skill, setting up and contrasting large, vivid blocks of sound with considerable impact and dispensing with such resources as melodic motifs, tonal perspectives and a sense of firm, established structure.
The music, he says in a note, is about a man (himself) who, like his country (Russia), "has lost his God and is trying to find Him again." Not a very long explanation, but it is really enough; listen to the music in that perspective, and its sometimes aimless-seeming wanderings and unfulfilled expectations make sense and have considerable emotional impact. One longs to hear the "Bright World" presumably coming in the next segment of "The Way."
Patrons, of course, are free to prefer pretty tunes. Those were offered abundantly in Sibelius's "The Swan of Tuonela" and Beethoven's Concerto in C for piano, violin and cello, both conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich with smooth expertise. The Beaux Arts Trio, guest artists in the Beethoven, functioned both as world-class soloists and a finely adjusted chamber ensemble, making the music sound better than I have ever heard it -- perhaps better than it really is.
In the Sibelius, a long, exquisite solo was played on the English horn by Richard White, making one wonder why that gently elegiac instrument is not spotlighted more often. John Martin played with his usual excellence in a less prominent but crucial cello solo.