Conductor Roberto Abbado was misidentified in a National Symphony Orchestra review in some editions of the Nov. 5 Style section. He is the nephew, not the son, of conductor Claudio Abbado. (Published 11/6/04)
High strings sound a long melody, immediately creating a mysterious atmosphere. Out of this ether, horns deliver distant hunting calls, while sharp oboe, cello and harp phrases add an earthy definition to the haze.
All of these elements conjure an enormous feeling of spaciousness and the image of a giant awakening. Thus begins the sublime first movement of Gustav Mahler's First Symphony. At the Kennedy Center on Thursday evening, the National Symphony Orchestra drew this rich harmony together and gave a memorable concert of Mahler's masterwork.
Italian conductor Roberto Abbado confidently led the orchestra through the four coruscating, ghostly and powerful movements. At every moment, Abbado was reminiscent of his father, Claudio, the esteemed former artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Like his father, Abbado fils drew out a myriad of detail and color without sacrificing the music's forward sweep. Deploying fluent gestures and a crystal-clear beat, Abbado set a tempo that seemed just right, allowing the orchestra to get inside the lush counterpoint of the score.
In the first movement, Abbado carefully brought together the contrasting subjects, eliciting some highly polished playing from the orchestra. The grand climax was remarkably lucid and you could hear each instrument section clearly. After the jocular scherzo, the third- movement funeral march, based on the children's song "Frere Jacques," was at once celestial and macabre. The golden NSO brass resounded in the piercing finale, which was suitably grand, violent and ultimately triumphant.
The affable American pianist Garrick Ohlsson joined the orchestra for a solid performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58. Ohlsson merged a luxuriant musical imagination with an absolute technical command. His playing was at once big and bold, solemn and poetic.
In the lovely opening chords, the NSO underscored why the concerto is justly one of the pillars of the orchestral repertoire. Ohlsson's soft piano phrases merged with tender chords from the orchestra. There was no air of tension typical of concerto openings, but rather a solemn sense of dedication and rapt spirituality. If Ohlsson brought a warm tone, rich coloration, and rhythmic verve in the more antagonistic andante, the sprightly finale was all dance and light.
The spark for the whole evening was Italian composer Fabio Vacchi's "The Trenches of Sabbiuno." This seven-minute work is a searing musical memorial to the Italian resistance in World War II, inspired by a 1944 massacre of Italian prisoners in the hills surrounding Bologna. The angular phrases and spiky rhythms of the work created a melancholic atmosphere. Abbado is a fierce champion of his compatriot's music, and he helped bring a manifest sincerity to the playing.
This not-to-be-missed concert repeats this evening and tomorrow night.