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NSO, Lopez-Cobos disappoint in “Iberian Suite” program

Portuguese fado singer Carminho seemed dwarfed by the Kennedy Center concert hall. (Courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

Such a disappointment. An enticing program that wasn’t performed well enough.

This was the National Symphony Orchestra’s concert Friday night, part of the Kennedy Center’s “Iberian Suite” festival. It offered Spanish- and Portuguese-tinged music that I wouldn’t think I could resist, such as Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras,” No. 5, with its haunting melody.

Or Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain,” so fragrant, dark and rhythmic. Or Joaquin Turina’s “Danzas Fantásticas,” Op. 22, whose movements have titles that tell the whole story: “Exaltation,” “Fantasy,” “Orgy.”

I was also eager to hear Carminho, a Portuguese star, who sings fado, the native music her country most loves. I could crudely say it’s like flamenco, though it’s darker, with a melancholy color all its own.

The evening did have its high points. One was a piece from 1986, “Tiento del Primer Tono y Batalla Imperial,” by Cristóbal Halffter, a Spanish composer new to me. He richly reimagined Spanish music from the baroque and the Renaissance periods and teased it with playful bursts of noise.

Another high was Javier Perianes, the deft and fluent pianist who played extensive solos in the Falla piece.

But Carminho, though she was sincere and touching, seemed a little dwarfed by the Kennedy Center concert hall, and she sang without the power I had expected. The soprano in the Villa-Lobos suite, Juanita Lascarro, also sounded just a little wan.

What dragged the concert down most, though, was the orchestra. These musicians don’t always sound their best, and this was a most unhappy night for them. They played out of tune and without much spirit.

One cause might have been the snow, which led to a rehearsal being canceled.

I would also fault the conductor, Jesús López-Cobos, despite his long international career. He kept the music moving. But someone else — with more buoyancy, some well-chosen words and maybe, now and then, a disapproving eyebrow raised toward the winds and brass — could have done a lot more to pull things together.

But I might blame the musicians, too. Some orchestras, even when things go wrong, still insist on playing well.

Sandow is a freelance writer.

The "Iberian Suite" festival continues through March 24. The NSO's next contribution is a program of French music inspired by Spain, led by Christoph Eschenbach, March 12-14.