When a critic leaves the concert hall, they don’t always know what the audience thinks of the performance. It was, however, abundantly clear Thursday night that the audience in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was generally excited about Sergey Khachatryan’s performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra and Cristian Macelaru. I, sadly, was in the minority, but while I was greatly looking forward to hearing one of my favorite pieces, this rendition left me cold.
The program itself was refreshing on paper. For one thing, it stood the usual order of events on its head by offering the concerto first and a new work, sandwiched between two shorter works, on the second half of the program. (One might observe that if something as relatively minor as this comes across as a refreshing change, the orchestra world really needs to get out more.)
For another thing, it offered a pleasing breadth of music, juxtaposing the Beethoven with three water-themed works by Sibelius, Smetana and Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence, who wrote his “Liquid Interface” for the NSO a decade ago. And then, it had the Beethoven, which is a piece I have a hard time not loving.
I was sorry, then, to feel that this particular performance of the Beethoven simply failed to connect. Macelaru, who has appeared several times with the orchestra, most recently at Wolf Trap with the puppet version of “The Firebird” last summer, had the shape of the piece down, but rode over its contours with a kind of emphasis that tended to pound the music into submission rather than inflaming its secrets, and ultimately seemed to lapse into a kind of sameness.
He had his hands full following Khachatryan, who liked to slow the tempos down — indeed, his first entrance was preceded by a little pause, like a figurative throat-clearing, that gave a sense of shifting gears but somewhat detracted from the violin’s usual soaring, exultant rush to join, or tower over, the orchestra. Throughout, the violinist tended to tug downward at the tempo, clearing a little space around his line — which would have been fine, had he made real use of it.
But for all the singing beauty of his sound, it didn’t seem, to me, consistently engaged — moments of real expressivity and connection yielded, over and over, to passages that seemed to coast on sheer ability, or occasional infelicities: harsh openings or dropped endings to phrases, which I believe were a deliberate part of the interpretive effect. The pauses and slownesses didn’t add up, for me, to any kind of new or particularly moving take on this piece, although I am happy that the performance did evidently touch many others.
The three takes on water, on the second half, were more involving, though I remained unconvinced that Macelaru was really making deep contact with the orchestra, which surely would have been happy on this watery program with a less dry hall, like the ones it recently performed at in Russia. It’s always nice to hear an orchestra revive a piece it commissioned some time ago, and the Bates piece has held up well.
The composer himself soloed, as is his wont, on an Apple computer on a table by the percussion section, and I’m sure the recorded effects — evocative creaks and plashes and crackles of wind and rain and weather — dominated some people’s experience of the piece, but the main point was how well they interacted with the acoustic instruments in a piece that constantly plays with the contrast between individual sounds and the fluid tapestry they make when brought together. Individual percussive notes, like single raindrops, emerge against the sustained flow of a shower of chimes, or winds, or the liquid plashes of xylophones, in music that kept offering glimpses of different styles — from the haze of Impressionism to a hint of a groove — like watery reflections of reality.
The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.