I wasn’t looking forward to a somewhat dreary National Symphony Orchestra program this week: Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” (what’s it doing here in May?), a new Concerto by Christopher Rouse, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s potboiler, “Scheherezade.” Attendance was a little thinner than usual, too, so I wasn’t alone in my pre-assessment. Although there were problems along the way, the playing of the NSO principals Thursday night in “Scheherezade” was enough to send us home swooning.
Guest conductor Gustavo Gimeno has come very far very fast. Five years ago, the young Spaniard was an assistant at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Since then, he has become music director of Luxembourg Philharmonic and had guest engagements with the symphonies of Boston, Cleveland, Toronto, Dallas, Houston and Stockholm, among others. His talent is manifest, if still percolating. His technique is fluid and nuanced; he shows what he wants in upbeats rather than waiting until it happens, and he doesn’t dictate solos.
All good. But the pulse itself of the music doesn’t always seem to be part of his limbic system. For all the expressivity of his stick, the music still comes out heavy-footed at times. In the Tchaikovsky, neither the “Chinese Dance” nor the “Dance of the Reed Flutes” had any lift, and the strings needed a few moments to get themselves together in the “Miniature Overture.” And, like so many others, he misjudges balances from the podium. No one seems to want to tell NSO conductors that the winds continually drown out the strings in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. On the flip side, soft percussion is often totally inaudible.
The Rouse Concerto, written in 2014, began with turgid chaos and gradually achieved coherence (or, at least communicativeness) only in the second and third sections. The slow movement had attractive material that sometimes evoked Marcel Duruflé and Samuel Barber, and the finale also engaged the ear with characterful episodes. My other criticism would be that it seems over-orchestrated; often one couldn’t tell if one was hearing organ chords or wind choirs. Still, Rouse is a musician, not some dry theorist, and all of his works have things to offer us. Soloist Paul Jacobs had the piece thoroughly in hand (and feet), and rewarded us with a bustling Bach encore.
Perhaps only Ravel’s “Bolero” makes so much music out of so few ingredients; play through “Scheherezade” on the piano, and you realize the piece is almost entirely about orchestration; the themes repeat tediously and endlessly. But here the NSO’s marquee names stepped up and delivered. All were excellent, but standouts included bassoonist Sue Heineman, harpist Adriana Horne (in the “Nutcracker” too), oboist Nicholas Stovall, and the entire horn section.
As for the many violin solos throughout the piece, I’ll simply say this: There is not a concertmaster in the United States who could play them any finer than the NSO’s Nurit Bar-Josef. On a newly acquired Guadagnini (ex-Grumiaux, ex-Silverstein), her exquisite, pellucid sound made you catch your breath.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday nights.