Trust Jean Sibelius to blow in with the first cold winds of the season. Last night, the National Symphony Orchestra played two pieces by the eternally enigmatic Finnish composer at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, under the direction of Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Sibelius seems to be reinvented by each new generation. During much of his long lifetime (1865-1957), he was hailed as the last great exponent of the symphonic tradition, a natural successor to Brahms and Tchaikovsky. In the mid-20th century, a reaction set in, and his status was downgraded to that of an amiable regionalist -- a sort of Edvard Grieg with pretensions. Most recently, Sibelius has been rediscovered as a quirky, unpredictable creator who worked in such a variety of styles that he is now claimed as a forebear by practically every strain of contemporary composer, whether modernist, minimalist, folklorist or neo-romantic.
Last night's program contained one out-of-the-ballpark masterpiece, the Violin Concerto, as well as some incidental music Sibelius created for a production of "The Tempest" -- five gnomic little utterances that were all but the last pieces he published before retreating into a long silence during the last quarter century of his life. They are fascinating: The Prelude, with its lowing brass and rattling percussion, could have been written yesterday, while other movements call to mind the best and strangest salon music of the late 19th century.
Ryu Goto, the soloist in the concerto, is a greatly gifted violinist of 17. His performance had many attributes -- a sweet tone, a questing tenderness, a welcome refusal to simply muscle through this extraordinarily difficult music. He hit the notes in their centers; he recovered his composure quickly and completely after dropping his chin rest on the stage; both his playing and his persona have charm.
That said, his interpretation was sketchy and superficial. How could it have been otherwise? This is a deep and mysterious work that vexes musicians with many times Goto's experience (it has been called the most challenging work in the violin repertory), and I cannot imagine why anybody would have expected a fully fleshed-out performance from somebody so new to it. There are plenty of concertos that Goto could have done wonderfully right now: I hope he will pace himself a little more carefully, so that he may give us a great Sibelius in a few more years.
The orchestral playing was terrific. The strings sounded rich and cool, with the winds and brass joining to create a loamy bog of strange noises just beneath the downy surface.
It was as though another orchestra had taken the stage after intermission when the NSO returned to play two early-20th-century French showpieces -- Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" (with two additional movements orchestrated by Michael Round) and Albert Roussel's Suite No. 2 from "Bacchus et Ariane." Suddenly the heavy dark mist of the Sibelius was replaced by a delicate clarity -- bright colors in soft light. I especially enjoyed the opening movement of the Ravel, where the winds passed around an ornate, reiterative melody as though it were a delicious secret.
The Roussel has the strange quality of suggesting Stravinsky throughout without ever actually sounding like him. It is smart, proportionate, highly narrative music (I suspect one could guess that a story was being told even without knowing that this was indeed the case) and it was played with a deft mixture of strength and transparency.
The concert will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8.