Let’s attract a new audience to orchestra music by offering them something timely and compelling. Like — lots of Central European music that tells stories! Oh. Wait. Maybe that isn’t as exciting as we thought it was. On Thursday night, even star violinist Hilary Hahn wasn’t enough to fill blocks of empty seats at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
That was really a shame. In fact, the evening was tremendously compelling. What didn’t look all that exciting on paper — two tone poems, Dvorak’s “The Noon Witch” and Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel,” framing a suite from Janacek’s “Cunning Little Vixen” and Mendelssohn’s ever-popular violin concerto — turned out to crackle in the hands of Cornelius Meister, the German conductor who made his NSO debut in 2014 and who proved, yet again, that he is the real deal, and someone to watch.
Of course, Hilary Hahn in the Mendelssohn would have single-handedly made a worthwhile evening. I’ve come to think of Hahn as one of the funnest violinists around. Her projection of cool mastery may distract some listeners from her knack with the lighter side of the standard repertory, which she makes searing and memorable without losing an inner sense of delight. Her secret: She does not confuse seriousness with earnestness. She invests in each luminous note that falls from her fingers, but she never tries to oversell what she is playing and is happy to let it laugh — for instance, artlessly throwing off the little figures in the last movement, giving the piece her own distinctive, even conversational stamp. It’s been a while since I saw an NSO audience quite so excited; and she smilingly acknowledged the applause with a Bach encore, the Gigue from the 3rd violin partita.
Meister and the orchestra, though, offered Hahn vivid accompaniment — on the edge of being slightly too fast — and made the most of the other pieces on the program. “The Noon Witch” is a small Dvorak folk-tale piece that Meister preceded with a veritably Gothic narration (mother threatens misbehaving child with witch; witch shows up, then vanishes, but leaves child dead) and that proved, in the performance, to have some of the relish of a spooky story around the campfire, with juicy tunes and slightly off-kilter winds signaling impending trouble, and an appropriately eerie entrance for the witch.
The crashing chords of horror at the end of that piece proved to set the mood for one of Meister’s strengths: literally, his fortes. He conducts with such fluidity and drive that the sheer volume he commands takes you by surprise: a tsunami that approaches smoothly and then bowls you over. “Till Eulenspiegel” showed the same variety and thoughtfulness, with the emphasis all on storytelling and not at all on Being a Showpiece.
For my money, though, the evening’s orchestral highlight was the Janacek, in part due to personal preference for this rich, profound, autumnal work. Meister is perhaps too young and too energetic to fully capture the aching poignancy of this music, but he brought out the abundant beauties of this thick and thoughtful score. A satisfying evening.
The program repeats on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.