Like Congress, the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra have just returned from their summer recess. If the nation's lawmakers took a couple of days to get down to nitty-gritty legislative business, the NSO immediately launched into the musical ether last night at the Kennedy Center. With its solid group of principal players in place, the orchestra gave a rousing performance of some tried-and-true Beethoven masterworks.
The concert was part of the center's month-long Prelude Festival, which is designed to bring new members into the regular season audience. With that goal in mind, the NSO was unabashed about putting such surefire crowd-pleasers as the Fifth Symphony on the program. This is doubtless soul-stirring stuff and while the works are performed so frequently that it was impossible for the orchestra to find anything original in the score, the NSO made a strong sonic argument for returning to the Concert Hall.
The experienced German conductor Bruno Weil confidently helped shape the performance. Weil burst on the conducting scene in the late 1980s, standing in for an ailing Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg Festival before going to head up the esteemed baroque performing group Tafelmusik. This maestro is precise yet not persnickety, favoring clear articulation, carefully delineated colors and swift tempos.
After a lucid yet gripping performance of Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture, Op. 62, Weil snapped his baton and set off the orchestra into the E-flat outburst that begins Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 62. The evening's soloist, Brazilian pianist Jean Louis Steuerman, matched the orchestra at every step of the ensuing musical confrontation. Laboring slightly at times to stay on top of this enormous work, Steuerman rippled off arpeggios one second and stirred up colossal waves of sound the next.
If some uneven entries and ensemble made the listener feel sometimes that the orchestra was still getting warmed up, the essential grandeur of the concerto never strayed away. The adagio and finale were respectively tender and fleet.
The NSO unrelentingly nailed the famous ta-ta-ta-TA motif in the highly polished account of Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67. The musicians daringly developed the more lyrical contrasting subject, building up the sense of tension that released only after the last note of the thunderous coda. In one particularly memorable moment, oboist Rudolph Vrbsky broke away with a sweetly melancholic cadenza. The entire orchestra moved zealously through the mysterious, touching and triumphant moods of the score.
Through it all, the NSO strived to give the full measure of each piece, signaling that the orchestra has lost nothing of its newfound technical dexterity over the summer. The concert increased the anticipation of the fast-approaching regular season and made one pleasingly wonder whether the orchestra would go into less-explored realms of the repertoire with the same gusto and skill that it brought to these Germanic warhorses.
The concert repeats tonight.