The National Symphony Orchestra offered some breathtaking playing on Wednesday night. Admittedly, it came from a guest soloist.
Paul Jacobs is one of the great living virtuosos. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s because his instrument is the organ, which is not the most frequently featured instrument in a concert setting. It also may be because he is utterly without artifice: still in his 30s, he projects a cherubic boyishness and freshness. In his NSO debut, he sat at the console of the Rubenstein Family Organ and played with a kind of serenity that belied the intricacy of the registrations with which he pulled a rainbow of sounds out of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in a minor. I have seldom heard an orchestral audience leap to its feet and whoop at a solo organ piece, but the adulation was well deserved.
The level of soloists, and of effort, was high across the board. This was the season’s first subscription concert — shifted a day earlier due to the start of Yom Kippur on Friday — and, on paper, it literally pulled out all the stops — first showcasing the center’s still-new organ with the Poulenc Organ Concerto followed by the Bach solo, and then turning to a monumentally scaled work, Mendelssohn’s second, or “Lobgesang,” symphony. This behemoth is rarely done — indeed, this was the NSO’s first-ever performance — and it calls for a full chorus (here, the Washington Chorus, sounding strong if sometimes a little imprecise) and three powerful solo singers. The soprano Tamara Wilson, in her NSO debut, sang both sweetly and powerfully; Twyla Robinson, another soprano, was capable; and the tenor Paul Appleby, a veteran of Wolf Trap and a more recent Vocal Arts DC recital, took me by surprise with the volume and power of what I had thought of as an essentially lyric — which is to say lighter — voice.
But for all of the musical muscle on display, the evening as a whole felt oddly routine, as if we had been plunged into the middle of the season. This was partly because of the conductor, Matthew Halls. Halls is an early-music specialist who is gradually taking on a wider range of musical assignments; his past outings with the NSO were a “Messiah” and a program that included Dutilleux. He is calm and competent, and the performance was clean and together, which is saying something. But the “Lobgesang” symphony, in particular, required a clearer vision and a stronger hand to pull off.
The symphony itself, in fact, was the appeal and the drawback of the evening. Its size is cited as one reason it’s not done more often, but many equally large works are repertory chestnuts, notably Beethoven’s Ninth, to which it owes a large and obvious debt. A clearer obstacle is that it is so much a relic of its time, and like many works that epitomize a particular period, it flourished when it was written and has proven less visionary, less enduring to those who came after. It’s a large-scale Romantic piece with a lot of lovely music but little that is actually breathtaking, and it’s unsure whether it wants to be a symphony or an oratorio, changing horses halfway through with its extended vocal conclusion. Simply letting it go isn’t enough, it turns out, to sell it to a contemporary audience, although it is a nice piece to have heard, and there are some compelling accounts of it on the market (including Dohnanyi’s).
The NSO is coming out of the gate energetically, with no fewer than four new players announced at the start of this season: Abel Pereira as principal horn; William Gerlach as principal trumpet; Leah Arsenault as assistant principal flute; and David Murray, who has been playing with the NSO for a couple of years on one-year contracts, as a section trombone. The orchestra sounded athletic and willing on Wednesday night. Next week, David Zinman will put it through its paces.
The program repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday.