More than a thousand people slipped and slid their way through slush puddles and half-plowed roads to hear the National Symphony Orchestra play music by Bedrich Smetana, John Adams and Sir Edward Elgar at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall yesterday afternoon.
All in all, it was worth the effort.
Smetana's "Vltava" -- better known as "The Moldau" -- boasts one of the all-time great tunes in classical music. The sweeping, expansive central theme is at once melancholy and ecstatic, as if it were one of those "peak moments" celebrated in the literature of mystical experience, captured by Smetana in the arc of a long, leisurely melody. The NSO, under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, made the most of this luscious music, particularly the dewy evanescence of the passage just before the final repeat.
The American premiere of a new piece by John Adams, "Guide to Strange Places," followed immediately. I keep waiting for my "John Adams moment" -- for the flash of enlightenment that will permit me to recognize the valuable things so many musicians and critics admire in the output of this industrious and hard-working composer -- but, as of yesterday, it still hasn't arrived.
The great minimalist works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass were remarkable in the way they reduced everything to two or three chords and then found a universe of interest and activity within them. Adams employs some of the same gestures -- the repetitive modules, the steady pulse, the consonant harmonies -- but, beginning with more material, he leaves us with less substance. Strings swirled, timpani boomed, bells rang: Most, if not all, was merry and bright. But "Guide to Strange Places" ultimately seems profligate: A lot of things happen, but not much registers.
Of course, Adams, by his own definition, is not a minimalist. In any event, Adams has his "folks," lots of them, and it is hard to imagine much disappointment with the colorful and brilliantly incisive performance Slatkin led yesterday, which reminded me of an intricate and fastidiously polished clockwork.
The program closed with Elgar's massive Violin Concerto. One wonders if there is a more purely and reliably satisfying violinist than Midori now before the public. In the 20th year of her career -- which happens to be only the 32nd year of her life -- she continues to play with an extraordinary mixture of youthful freshness and absolute technical assurance. She has just the sweet, solemn temperament for the Elgar work, and that, combined with her huge tone, judicious use of portamento phrasing, and the altogether sympathetic accompaniment of Slatkin and the NSO, made for a memorable conclusion to the afternoon.
The concert will be repeated tonight at 8.