The marquee name was missing from the National Symphony Orchestra concert this week. Jaap van Zweden, who is due to take over as the New York Philharmonic’s music director in 2018, withdrew from the concerts for family reasons. This left Thursday’s audience with two artists who were probably not very familiar to them: Simone Lamsma, a Dutch violinist whom van Zweden has long championed, and the conductor Mark Wigglesworth, who presumably has some time on his hands since he resigned after a season as music director of the English National Opera.
Once again, though, the evening proved that marquee names are far from everything when it comes to performance. More important is, for example, a violinist with a rich, throaty tone to draw the singing heart out of Shostakovich’s first violin concerto, spinning a bridge across a musical abyss with craggy sides built of dark wind instruments. Or a conductor whose elegant understatement, sometimes bordering on the phlegmatic in slower passages, accompanies high competence and an ability to bounce the orchestra into vital energetic playing when called for — in, for instance, the second movement of the concerto, which sprang like a rubber ball in exuberant flight.
Shostakovich’s first concerto is a satisfying meal into which a young player can sink her teeth. Lamsma, who trained at Yehudi Menuhin’s school and has some of the freedom and individuality that that background often seems to provide, made much of its range, from keening solo song, husky on the lower strings as if at the brink of tears, through to the lilting frenzy of the final movement.
Hers is not a singing tone as much as an expressive one, less about pure beauty than communication — at least, in this content-full piece, whose emotional heart is an impassioned third movement passacaglia followed by an extended solo cadenza that takes the concerto’s musical material, and the listener, outside the frame of what preceded it. Greeted by warm applause, she graciously thanked the audience and announced that “after Shostakovich, there can only be Bach.” She then played, as an encore, the Largo from the third partita for violin solo as a questioning, thoughtful meditation that created a small bubble of reflective space, rather than simply pretty notes as a palate-cleanser.
The second half of the program was no less weighty: Brahms’s second symphony. Wigglesworth showed he was as sensitive an orchestral leader as he was an accompanist in the Shostakovich, elegantly sculpting the phrases without extraneous flash. He is an honest conductor rather than a glamorous one, a servant of the music, and in the slow movements, again, this led to a sense of phlegmaticism, particularly when an orchestra perhaps used to more Sturm und Drang on the podium got a little sloppy toward the end of the night. I find that Brahms tends in any case to go on rather longer than he needs to, but I am well aware that this view is not shared by the majority of music-lovers, who savor every sweet note, just as Wigglesworth and the orchestra happily served them up.
The program repeats Friday morning at 11:30 and Saturday night at 8.