In nearly 2½ decades of listening to the National Symphony Orchestra, seldom have I heard the ensemble play as well for any conductor as it did Thursday night for James Conlon. One of America’s foremost conductors, Conlon has a long history of guest appearances with the orchestra. Mutual familiarity and respect translated into compelling musicmaking of great intensity and beauty.
As part of a series honoring the NSO’s longtime music director, Mstislav Rostropovich, the program focused on three composers with whom he had long, fruitful associations — Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. Unfortunately, traffic delays prevented my hearing the “Four Sea Interludes” from Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes,” which opened the program.
French pianist Lise de la Salle, who made her NSO debut in Prokofiev’s First Concerto, is that rarity among musicians, a child prodigy who has continued to develop into a full-fledged artist combining virtuosity and significant communicative skill. She is strictly business, sitting at the instrument with beautifully erect posture and a minimum of fuss. Her rhythmic vitality is viscerally bracing, and she seems to revel in Prokofiev’s thorny cross-rhythms. Her carefully calibrated dynamic palette runs the gamut from whispered passages that nevertheless retain their clarity to fierce fortissimos that are resonant rather than aggressive.
In a languid slow movement, de la Salle threaded gossamer figurations around superbly executed wind solos. The hand-in-glove ensemble was most dazzling in the antic finale. After a witty give-and-take between soloist and orchestra that continually confounded expectations, as the concerto’s opening theme returned, enhanced by a full complement of percussion, it seemed as if the concert hall itself began to sparkle.
If critical commentary and frequency of performance are indicators of a musical work’s continued vitality, then Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, first heard 80 years ago this November, is alive and well. Claims and counterclaims about the symphony’s inspiration and meaning are still debated. But it’s safe to say that it was with this symphony that Shostakovich reestablished his reputation as a leader of Soviet music in the wake of scathing official condemnation during the Stalinist Terror.
From the beginning, this performance emerged with great seriousness of purpose, unfolding with the unaffected naturalness of speech. Anguished string utterances permeated the first movement, evoking deftly blended responses from the wind choirs. The colorful circuslike Scherzo spoke with a pompous sarcasm that remained lithe and light-footed, followed by a hushed Largo that seemed a bottomless well of grief. The huge, insistent finale was perfectly paced, displaying an orchestral sound that, in both its sum and parts, was magnificent.
Conlon’s ideas in this well-traversed score were understated, yet communicated with freshness and compelling conviction. The orchestra was his full partner every step of the way, demonstrating that this artwork, conceived under duress during perilous times, still speaks eloquently to our own.
The NSO program continues through Saturday at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Tickets: $15-$89. 202-467-2600. kennedy-center.org.