Vassily Sinaisky is the epitome of a capable conductor. He’s been doing this for a long time, and it shows.
In his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night, he showed none of the jitters of a newcomer. Sinaisky, after all, has been leading orchestras for more than four decades, first in the Soviet Union, then in Russia, and everywhere else. He’s held a number of music directorships, most recently at the Bolshoi in Moscow, a post he resigned, abruptly,in 2013. He knows how to make the music go, and for a diffuse and wide-ranging program like the one on Thursday, he’s a good man to have on the podium.
Having said all that, I can’t entirely exonerate him from opening-night jitters, because some excuse was needed for the first piece, the overture to Borodin’s “Prince Igor.” It was the first time the NSO had performed the piece, and it sounded like it: Although its brooding opening was promising, the overall performance was messy, a bit raucous, and not very decisive. Sinaisky, however, made a point of acknowledging the wind and brass players who had offered solos.
The orchestra rallied, a lot, for the Mozart clarinet concerto, which Sinaisky, a big, powerful figure on stage, conducted with a soft, firm touch, a sense of power deliberately restrained. The soloist was one of the NSO’s own: Loren Kitt, the principal clarinet, who joined the orchestra in 1970. His Mozart sounded as if he could play it with his eyes closed, even if he had the sheet music on a stand in front of him. In fact, sometimes it sounded as if he were indeed playing it with his eyes closed; he performed so fluidly that the whole thing felt leisurely, even when it was quite fast, and the energy flagged a bit in places. There were countless elegant touches, though, like one long, wonderful run that gradually scaled back from quite loud to quite soft, as Kitt’s fingers ran smoothly up and down the keys, and Sinaisky was a solicitous partner.
The showpiece came after intermission with Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells,” big and burly and not all that frequently performed. (The only time the NSO had done it previously was in 1977 under the direction of Norman Scribner, the founder of the Choral Arts Society and a cornerstone of Washington’s choral scene, who died at the end of March, The Choral Arts Society reprised it here, and the performances are a nod to his memory.) Based on a Russian translation of a text by Edgar Allan Poe, the piece is a massive choral work with three vocal soloists carrying the audience on a dramatic ride through four kinds of bells — sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells and funeral bells.
It was here that Sinaisky came into his own, less by overt feats of brilliance than simply by knowing so well how the music was supposed to go that he made it go that way, without resorting to excess or seeming at all daunted by the huge volume of crashing music all around him. The four sections were beautifully delineated, from the raw, frosty loudness of the chorus in the sleigh bells section to the horror and dread of the third-movement fire alarm. The wedding bells section was sensuous and caressing in a manner distinct from the enveloping funeral bells, which offered a different promise of release.
The Choral Arts Society had its head, full-throated and not always entirely clean, but effective. The orchestra, too, sounded fine: firm and excited, flanked by no fewer than three keyboards (celesta, upright piano and organ), and releasing strong solos, like the English horn opening of the final, funereal movement.
Of the three soloists, all making NSO debuts as well, the standout — literally — was the soprano Dina Kuznetsova; her warm, clear voice, though not large, was able to cut through the masses of sound and make an effect in a way the other two were not. This was in part because the soprano solo comes in the wedding bells section, in which the accompanying forces are notably smaller. The tenor, Sergey Semishkur, had a wiry voice and some powerful expressive abilities. The first word, “Listen,” was authoritative and arresting precisely because he didn’t push it out at the top of his lungs, but he was sometimes subsumed in the general roar. And the baritone, Elchin Azizov, was a little anodyne in the moving closing movement. Still, it’s nice to hear a rarity, and it felt good to be in Sinaisky’s safe hands to hear it.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.