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A light Ax, a ponderous Fate: NSO plays Mozart and Tchaikovsky

The veteran Emanuel Ax played with the flair of a young man, appearing with the NSO in Mozart on Thursday night. (The program repeats Friday and Saturday.) (Credit: Lisa Marie Mazzucco)
The veteran Emanuel Ax played with the flair of a young man, appearing with the NSO in Mozart on Thursday night. (The program repeats Friday and Saturday.) (Credit: Lisa Marie Mazzucco)
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Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, an industry insider recently said, doesn’t sell tickets. If that’s the case, it’s downright inexplicable that it gets programmed so much; I may have heard it more than any other Tchaikovsky symphony. On Thursday night, the insider’s observation seemed borne out; the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was far from full for the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance.

The marquee name, of course, wasn’t Tchaikovsky, but the pianist Emanuel Ax, who could sell a ticket or two in his day, but is evidently no longer the attraction he once was. No reflection on him: on Thursday, he showed his fingers are as nimble as ever, his demeanor as sunny, his music as easy and enjoyable. He played Mozart’s G Major Concerto, K. 453, and he made Mozart’s cadenzas sound fresh and smooth, the work of a young man, spooling out of his hands and heart.

The programming was also canny. The Mozart was preceded, on the first half, by a work called “The Messenger” by composer Valentin Silvestrov, now 81, written after the death of his wife, musicologist Larissa Bondarenko. Silvestrov’s name won’t sell tickets either, which is a shame, because his piece certainly tugs at the heartstrings. Written only for piano and strings, it offers lovely Mozartean phrases (beautifully played by concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef), faintly blurred by the wash of sustained notes as if obscured by a veil making us aware of the music’s distance. The classical style becomes not only communication but a symbol of nostalgia for a brighter, lost past. All the music sounded as if it were in quotation marks, emerging with more and more effort until it died away into a long, sustained silence.

This was an intriguing contrast to the Mozart, actual 18th century music with meaning that lays within rather than outside the notes. Yet the NSO has yet to make Mozart fully its own; against Ax’s water-clear gentleness, even the strings, usually one of the group’s strengths, sounded a little strident. The NSO is a powerful orchestra that loses some of its force through inattention to details, and it didn’t quite mesh with Ax’s fluent precision. The pianist’s encore, a Chopin nocturne (Op. 15, No. 2) was, by contrast, a highlight, a slip or two notwithstanding.

John Storgards, the Finnish conductor, isn’t new to the NSO, and he conducts with an energy that can get the orchestra aroused to considerable effect. Yet he didn’t grab me this evening the way he had on past encounters.

Perhaps it was that I’ve heard the Tchaikovsky so often, with so many great conductors, that Storgards’s reading seemed to me blunt and somewhat two-dimensional in comparison, starting from an opening that was downright lugubrious — echoing the labored dying breaths of the Silvestrov piece with ponderous iterations of each individual phrase, as if Fate (the subject of the musical theme that serves as the piece’s connective tissue) could barely lift its head. He gradually moved the orchestra from there to a great extreme of passion, and back down again — and then did the same thing in the second movement, with even more passion. The many lighter details of the piece seemed subsumed in his reading to the inexorable tread of the heavy inner voices, and the NSO’s aforementioned lack of attention to details undercut some of the orchestra’s best moments: Abel Pereira’s lovely horn solo in the second movement, for instance, was followed by some tiny hiccups in ensemble.

Yet Storgards kept sight, doggedly, of where he wanted to go, and by the time he reached yet another climax, in the final movement, he brought to it a feeling of arrival. The whole thing offered a kind of passionate intensity that to me seemed to lack something at the core, but that was undeniably effective in the house, and the audience applauded warmly, and, one hopes, resolved to buy tickets to other Tchaikovsky Fifth in the future.

The program repeats Friday morning and Saturday evening.