Thursday night's National Symphony Orchestra program at Wolf Trap looked none too promising on paper: a trio of warhorses conducted by a fledgling maestro, featuring a soloist of such ubiquitous celebrity he's practically a brand name. As it happened, the concert proved successful -- even exceptional -- though for largely surprising reasons.
Surprises were not forthcoming from violinist Itzhak Perlman, unless anyone at this late date is surprised by his flawless technical command. The warm tone was there as always in Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, as were the immaculately executed runs, the Gypsy flavor in the phrasing and the apparent effortlessness of his playing in general. But while Perlman wasn't just going through the interpretive motions (as he has sometimes been known to do), he didn't entirely avoid the impression of a much-loved storyteller gamely trotting out an over-familiar yarn for the gazillionth time. There aren't many virtuosos out there who can phrase Bruch's music with the sheer conversational ease that is Perlman's strong suit. A few of them, though, can muster fresher thinking and a more visceral level of engagement with the piece.
The young conductor Paul Haas was all about fresh thinking and visceral engagement. His musicmaking provided consistent surprises all evening -- not from the kind of attention-hogging interpretive gestures you might expect in a conductor of his years, but from cogent ideas that revealed a keen musical mind and an impressive feeling for the natural pulse and trajectory of a score. Wagner's "Tannhauser" Overture proceeded in a single, unbroken arc from the beautifully blended wind chords of the opening through the brass iteration of the Pilgrims' Chorus theme at the conclusion (phrased opulently here, with a lyricism not confined by bar lines). His tempos -- forward-moving but never rushed -- sounded utterly convincing, thanks to his skill at melding and tapering phrases to create a sense of gradually unfolding drama.
Haas -- who's clearly been learning a lot in gigs with youth ensembles and second-tier regional orchestras -- was even finer in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. Consistently drawing parallels between this work and its darker, more sublime cousin, the Sixth Symphony, he also tapped a vein of restless, ruminative emotion that brought to mind the composer's operatic magnum opus, "The Queen of Spades." More often than not, Haas took his time with the score, allowing Tchaikovsky's brooding colors to fully distill. Yet, when speed and rafter-ringing power were required (as in the final movement), the conductor delivered, generating thrills without breathlessness or coarse tone.
Indeed, throughout the evening, Haas's sensitivity to rhythmic and dynamic gradation, and his ability to marry heartfelt expression with disciplined playing from the NSO -- which was in highly responsive, virtuosic form, aided by some notably well-balanced miking in the Filene Center -- would have been impressive in a conductor three times his age. If Thursday's concert was an accurate barometer of his talents, Haas is headed for a significant podium career.