The music was bracing, and brassy, and redolent of 20th-century anger and angst in a kind of fresh-faced, youthful way. It was by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He is usually thought of as a purveyor of landscape-oriented tone poems — “pastoral” is the adjective used in the NSO’s program notes, but I think of the tempests of his “Sea Symphony” — Vaughan Williams, in his Fourth Symphony, which the NSO played on Thursday night, offered something more abstract, and even, by his standards, abrasive. Seldom heard, it is a nice contrast to his more familiar work, and it made a satisfying close to a program on Thursday night that took the National Symphony Orchestra off the beaten track — if not with rousing musical success, certainly with welcome interest.
The music was all British, all from the 20th and 21st century, and all in the hands of Sir James MacMillan, the Scottish composer-conductor who made his debut with the orchestra with this program. MacMillan put his stamp on the evening from the start with an introduction read from written notes in a lilting Scots accent that added a touch of local color and the oddly didactic to the proceedings.
MacMillan further stamped the evening by leading off with his own work. This composer’s name has become almost synonymous to my ear with the title “Veni, veni, Emmanuel,” a percussion concerto written for Evelyn Glennie, which the NSO has played before, though MacMillan also is known for several other evocative, tonal, illustrative works. Thursday’s program featured three interludes from his 2007 opera “The Sacrifice,” which plunged from a stirring opening into heightened, folk-colored melodrama ranging over the entire orchestra, bristling with a full complement of percussion and brass. The final movement, “The Investiture,” was intended to be ominous (it illustrates a scene of impending violence) but conveyed a kind of jollity in its driving opening. It was all a bit long-winded and loose-limbed, but not unamiable.
The German cellist Alban Gerhardt was the soloist in Elgar’s much-played and much-loved cello concerto, and he played it with taut intensity, providing an athletic, anxious focus to a piece that was played with an almost uniform sense of wistfulness, apart from the rousing rustic allegro at the start of the long finale. Although Gerhardt flung himself into his playing, he presented the affect of a kind of emotional restraint, anguish straining to get out.
MacMillan is a perfectly adequate conductor; he can beat time and indicate where he wants things to happen, and he is certainly no worse than many others one has seen on this podium. Under him, the NSO kept to its wonted energetic sloppiness, which didn’t help focus the Elgar, but added verve to the verve-full Vaughan Williams. This symphony was a good pendant to the opening MacMillian piece, also starting with a loud, strident tone, also filled with brass; the NSO’s tuba player has not been this busy in a program for a while. What MacMillan perhaps lacks is the finesse to focus and build the excitement of a symphony orchestra in full cry, but if his readings tended to sag in the middle, he finished with a bang, a crisp close to a symphony that I’d wager most people in the house would be happy to hear again.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.