Last weekend, the National Symphony Orchestra’s opening-night gala focused (partly) on African American culture. But on Thursday night, the start of the regular subscription season, the flavor was British. Edward Gardner, who led the English National Opera for eight years and is now the chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, made his debut with the orchestra in a program of three Shakespeare-inspired works, two of them by British composers. Though in fact, due to the traditional observances of the start of the season, he technically made his debut (as he pointed out in remarks to the audience) conducting “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
He acquitted himself perfectly well with our national anthem, but it was in the British works that he really seemed to be on home turf. It’s a time-honored strategy for new conductors to bring an orchestra and its audiences a piece they don’t know, and Gardner brought two: Elgar’s delightful colorful tone poem “Falstaff” and Walton’s “Henry V Suite,” fashioned from the music the composer wrote for the film with Sir Laurence Olivier in 1944. Both partook of an engaging narrative quality that made a great case for unfamiliar work.
“Falstaff,” written at symphonic length, was offered as the first half of the program, with supertitles to indicate what was going on — a strategy that could equally well or badly be employed in Strauss’s “Don Juan,” to which Gardner compared this piece in his remarks, but that was undeniably helpful underlining robust and specific characterizations and actions, and that I found less distracting than I expected. The piece, perhaps inevitably, dwells heavily in the lower winds and strings, with a big part for the bassoon and lots of cello emphasis — a not unexpected sound palette with which to depict an overweight, elderly man. Still, Elgar keeps his illustration fresh by avoiding sonic cliches — turning sometimes to the lower strings of the violin, or sketching the knight’s finalbreaths in a rattle of percussion rather than wind instruments. Unfortunately the orchestra wasn’t always together, which distracted, in the piece’s closing measures, from the delicate vulnerability of the music.
For the Walton suite, and for the Tchaikovsky “Romeo and Juliet” overture that concluded the program, the NSO brought in actors. Matthew Rauch had the particularly tough assignment of declaiming a speech from “Henry V” between the last two movements of the five-movement suite; the episodic nature of the suite, and the fact that the music was composed with the idea of accompanying speech, made this less of an intrusion than it might have been, but the whole evening had to abruptly change gears when he began talking, and it was a little hard to follow. Before the Tchaikovsky, Audrey Bertaux and William Vaughan presented a balcony scene in which Romeo wandered among the musicians on stage while Juliet declaimed from the chorus balcony above; together, and with a whole scene to work with, they were able to be more effective, if a little overwrought. I’m not sure these interpolations actually did much more than emphasize the fall’s Shakespeare theme (there are two more Shakespeare concerts this season), but they were at least less distracting than the Baltimore Symphony’s unsuccessful juxtaposition of the Prokofiev ballet score and Shakespeare text last year.
The Tchaikovsky was the most familiar, most accessible, and least successful piece of the night. Gardner is a capable conductor and showed his dramatic mettle in the Elgar, in particular, but the Tchaikovsky seemed like a temperamental mismatch, and he wasn’t able to rein in the orchestra and keep it from sounding, often, like it was about to fall apart. Tchaikovsky, to borrow a cliche, is a harder composer than he sounds like, and this overture, particularly its well-known ending, is better served by a no-holds-barred approach than by the slightly urbane, slightly decorous air that even at his most abandoned Gardner couldn’t help projecting. The piece is inevitably a crowd-pleaser, but it didn’t show Gardner or the orchestra at their best.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. The NSO offers two more “Shakespeare at the Symphony” programs Oct. 6-8 and Nov. 3-5.