It doesn’t often happen at an orchestra concert that the story of the evening is a Haydn symphony. But when Sir Mark Elder picked up the microphone on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage Thursday night, I found myself wishing that on this night, it could be.
There are more than 100 Haydn symphonies — 104, to be exact — and as Elder asked wryly, would Haydn be any less great a composer if he had written only 10? A lot of them are quite wonderful, and many don’t get played: No. 80, the one he played with the National Symphony Orchestra, is a quirky, syncopated, angular thing that the orchestra hadn’t tackled for more than 30 years.
Elder was starting the first of two subscription weeks with the NSO, a kind of mini-residency. The easy tone of his spoken remarks demonstrated a reason he’s popular and telegenic in his native Britain. He was informative and witty and engaging rather than dumbing down, pointing out things to listen for: the abrupt starts and stops; the contrasts of key and mood; the weird syncopations of the final movement that leave the ear feeling unbalanced, as if walking on a ship’s deck at sea.
In performance, though, Elder brought out less élan and flair in this music than his remarks had promised. The contrasts were certainly there, but the execution was less sparkly and less varied than they could have been — a little heavy, even, for all the quirks, monochromatic.
As for the story of the evening, the Haydn was framed with two works by Richard Strauss, and as quirky as it was, Strauss, perhaps inevitably, managed to dominate. The program began with very early Strauss and ended with early-mid Strauss, growing all the while, from the slender serenade for 13 wind instruments that Strauss wrote at 17 through the chamber-sized orchestra called for in the Haydn to the bristling full orchestra. Nothing but a stage-filling complement of instruments would do for “Ein Heldenleben” (a hero’s life), the swaggering self-portrait the composer wrote in his mid-30s, depicting his life as an allegory of love and battle and adversaries (the squawking winds in the role of critics) and heroic apotheosis.
I’m hoping the NSO is going through growing pains in this first season of a new music director, responding to the extra scrutiny of varied programming, including a number of pieces for smaller forces, with a kind of adolescent self-consciousness. Certainly the ensemble in the Serenade, a chamber work, was no tighter than it had been in Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” a couple of weeks ago; it didn’t quite cohere.
And there were some infelicities in “Heldenleben,” as well, although there was also some beautiful playing. Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster, was radiant in the extended violin solo in the section depicting the composer’s wife. But that very section showed some of the limitations of this particular performance with this particular conductor. The orchestra swells up fully after the solo, supposedly with warm ardor, but on Thursday it was hard to distinguish that from sadness, or anger. The power was there, the ideas were there, but the specificity of feeling was not. The program repeats Friday night; next week, Elder returns with composers active around World War I: Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, and Ravel.