The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

National Symphony Orchestra gets with the toe-tapping Mexican program

The pianist Denis Kozhukhin made an impressive NSO debut in the famously difficult third concerto of Rachmaninoff.
The pianist Denis Kozhukhin made an impressive NSO debut in the famously difficult third concerto of Rachmaninoff. (Marco Borggreve)

Carlos Miguel Prieto is the conductor of the year, according to Musical America. On Thursday night, he seized victory from the jaws of defeat by taking an initially unpromising concert and shifting it into a delight.

Prieto, 53, was making his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra, and they weren’t going to make it easy for him. The Mexican conductor has a debonair, 20th-century charm, and he opened with the ingratiating “El Salon Mexico” — which does for Mexican music what “Appalachian Spring” does for folk tunes — signaling that the evening was going to be a “tap your toes to Mexican dances” kind of program.

But the National Symphony Orchestra didn’t sound very toe-tapping. Rather, the musicians made their way sluggishly into the piece, playing the rhythms with a kind of aggression.

It was hard for anyone, though, to resist what came next. It’s easy enough to be waspish about yet another performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto with yet another virtuoso, but 32-year-old Russian Denis Kozhukhin offered a reminder of why one wants to keep hearing those new virtuosos.

The winner of the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition, Kozhukhin plays with all the authority one could want: There’s a palpable firmness to the way he touches the notes. What he offers is a 21st-century take on Russian fireworks, dazzling and strong yet emphasizing musicality over circus tricks even in the astonishing cadenza — and all with an underlying sense of cleanness and precision: fireworks without any smoke to obscure the picture.

The result was more a presentation than a self-conscious interpretation, and the orchestra, though it kept rushing in the first movement, gradually came under the same spell and shared in the roar from the crowd when it was over. Kozhukhin acknowledged the applause with one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, Op. 67 No. 4 — which sounds like a cross between “Flight of the Bumblebee” and “Chopsticks” — which he played with breathtaking lightness and grace.

It says something for Prieto’s charm that so many people returned after the intermission for a piece that was unfamiliar to most: “La Noche de los Mayas” by Silvestre Revueltas, a suite compiled from a film score. It says a great deal for his ability that it was a worthy successor to the Rachmaninoff, certainly in terms of entertainment value, continuing the toe-tapping theme of the evening — or perhaps representing a synthesis of the lightness of the Copland and the density of the Rachmaninoff, with all of the contrasts and drama that a respectable film score could want, and always a hair better than it needed to be.

After light syncopated strings in one movement kept being offset by unexpectedly dark interjections from the brass, and after the swaying grace of the requisite slow movement, the real showstopper came in the form of an extended passage for no fewer than 12 percussionists, who drummed and shook and even blew into a conch shell while Prieto (who has the conductor’s tact not to conduct the soloists) shimmied along discreetly on the podium. At one point, he looked out at the audience in a kind of “Are you guys hearing this?” gesture, as the conch shell launched into its second round of bellows.

The orchestra has played the piece a couple of times before. It was great fun, and well worth hearing and repeating.

Prieto then did something almost unprecedented in a subscription concert by asking the audience, “Is it okay if we play one more?”

Responding to their affirmative cries, he launched into another Mexican dance piece, named for the folk dance Huapango, by Mexican composer José Pablo Moncayo. It drew in the entire orchestra, with spotlights for many soloists, who by now mostly sounded as if they were on board with the program.