The music of Michael Tippett (Sir Michael over there) is an English thing, like inadequate plumbing and soggy desserts. He lived a very long time, was a gentle and likable man and composed some interesting music. Yet the longer he lived, the more the weird, cultlike musical public of England revered him as the great local genius. While he could never scale Parnassus on his own, the composer survived long enough (he died last year at the age of 93) for Parnassus to come to him.
On its own merits, it's not surprising that Tippett's 1938-39 Concerto for Double String Orchestra was new to the National Symphony Orchestra at last night's Kennedy Center Concert Hall performance. But it has been nigh 60 years since it was premiered, and Tippett fans have been agitating on this side of the Atlantic for decades. Its belated introduction was a welcome remedy to an understandable oversight.
Tippett's innocent and rhythmically jaunty exercise for string orchestra (divided in two) sounded new and uncomfortable to the NSO players. The composer divides the orchestra into equal parts, used in staggered opposition: They trade ideas back and forth, with the full ensemble rarely engaged in continuous counterpoint. Tippett also subdivides and mixes his two groups, using, for instance, the upper strings of one ensemble against the lower strings of the other.
This results in a challenge to the upper strings that the NSO failed. The violins are exposed throughout the concerto, and given the Concert Hall's relatively weak projection of lower tones, they were doubly naked. They sounded shrill at best. Intonation was frequently off and ensemble playing was jagged. Large jumps in a melodic line, for example, led to death leaps into uncharted and unlikable microtonal clusters.
After months of listening to this orchestra, I think the greatest hurdle it faces is creating discipline and tonal warmth in the violins. Throughout the Tippett, the violas and cellos acquitted themselves irreproachably. The violins did not. Without improving the violin section, any growth throughout the orchestra will be undermined.
It is, perhaps, time to examine the chain of command and ask serious questions about what is going on, and how it can be fixed. The concertmaster, William Steck, is not solely responsible for the sound of his players, but he bears much of the burden, especially details of bowing and articulation. His own solo playing has not suggested a nuanced or passionate approach to string lines; his effect on the rest of the players is a matter of concern.
Paavo Berglund, who led the orchestra last night, is not the most inspiring conductor. In the fourth movement of Brahms's Fourth Symphony, for instance, he conducted through the orchestra's staccato bursts of fury as if he were directing mouse traffic in a small maze. But he is no slouch of a musician, either, and his admirable recordings of the Sibelius symphonies suggest he wasn't asking for the kind of shrill, stuttering sound the violins produced. That leaves the ball in the court of the players and their immediate leaders.
The performance of the violins makes a strong contrast to other sections of the orchestra, which play with confidence, accuracy and tonal dignity. The woodwind section is strong, particularly principal bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa, who performed the solo line of Carl Maria von Weber's Bassoon Concerto in F. Matsukawa is a young player, a Slatkin appointment (in 1997) and a gem. As an orchestral player, he can be relied on for a burst of rich maroon and dark crimson in the collective sound. His playing is elastic and agile, and thankfully accurate.
The same goes for his gentle, songlike account of the Weber. His soft tones were full and even, his passage work liquid and delicate, his second movement like an aria and his last movement filled with a calm modesty in its virtuoso romp. He is an invaluable asset to the orchestra.
Berglund finished with a lackluster performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 4. The second movement had moments of roseate glow, and the third was boisterous. But the textures need more clarity and the seams more finesse. All in all, a disappointing evening.
The program repeats this afternoon and tomorrow evening.