Ordinarily, the revival of a major American symphony by a living composer -- a symphony, moreover, with an important history in Washington -- would take pride of place in any review of the National Symphony Orchestra's current program, which Leonard Slatkin conducted at the Kennedy Center last night. But John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 will have to wait for a few paragraphs, as it was preceded by some of the finest violin playing that has been heard in these parts for quite a while.
Nikolaj Znaider was the soloist in Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 and he was nothing less than magnificent. The piece itself is beloved by violin aficionados, but it is the sort of direct, songful and sweetly nostalgic work to which the young and the callow sometimes condescend. They shouldn't: The concerto is faultlessly made, and its brimming sentiment never descends into bathetic sentimentality -- especially when played with the command Znaider brought to it last night.
The opening passage was imbued with a hint of cantorial wailing, an approach I'd never heard before, that was absolutely convincing. Every note thereafter was charged with urgent feeling, ranging from dramatic proclamations through expressions of soft tenderness so intimate and personal that one would have been almost embarrassed to listen to them had they not also been so fresh and lovely. The Danish-born Znaider (in tandem with Slatkin's typically adept accompaniment) made the concerto much more than just a collection of moments, however. Instead, it seemed an unbroken meditation -- with some mercurial mood swings, to be sure, but always organic and individual in its form, substance and realization. The performance was also technically impeccable: If Znaider missed a note, I didn't hear it.
As for the Corigliano, which Slatkin introduced to Washington almost exactly 10 years ago and then recorded with the NSO, it remains a powerful utterance, written in a manner that combines the orchestral bravura and nightmarish, lapel-shaking intensity of Mahler and Shostakovich with a distinctly Italo-American lyricism. At times, it seems a sort of opera for orchestra -- and indeed, each movement is modeled on a different "character," a memory of one of Corigliano's friends evoked in music.
Corigliano provided his own program notes: "In the decade preceding the composition of my own First Symphony, I lost many friends and colleagues to the AIDS epidemic, and the cumulative effect of those losses, naturally, affected me deeply." He went on to observe that the symphony was "generated by feelings of loss, anger and frustration."
All of which comes across in the 40-minute symphony but is now less effective than the grave, restrained and elegiac third movement, with its long solo for cello, here played by the NSO's resplendent David Hardy (later joined by cellist Glenn Garlick). The first and second movements -- a sort of crashing catalogue of horrors, relieved somewhat by the unseen presence of an offstage pianist (Lambert Orkis) playing a gentle tango by the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz that wafts over the audience like a breeze -- make brilliant use of the orchestra but now seem more excited than exciting. Rarely has an epigram been more wrongheaded than the Roman poet Horace's insistence that if you want an audience to weep, you must first weep yourself. Most of the time, I felt that I was listening to a catharsis, rather than experiencing one, and the effect was oddly distancing.
Still, the symphony is intelligent and ambitious; Slatkin conducted it with a mixture of fervor and clarity that he imparted to his fine orchestra. He knows how to put across a new or unfamiliar composition -- what to accentuate, what to streamline -- and, if it is true, as Slatkin announced from the stage, that the Corigliano symphony has been played 800 times since its premiere in 1990, it is hard to imagine a more committed and colorful rendition than the one it received last night.
The program, which opened with a desultory run-through of the "Tragic" Overture by Johannes Brahms, will be repeated this afternoon at 1:30 and tomorrow night at 8.