Pops concerts can be a lot of fun, but it is best to market them clearly as such. Thursday night’s concert by the National Symphony Orchestra was a pops concert in all but name, provoking a few grumbles at intermission and afterward about programming that was decidedly lightweight. It fell to American conductor James Gaffigan, last at the podium of the NSO in 2012, to conduct this somewhat underwhelming evening, and he did so capably but without distinction.
Ravel’s “La Valse” was the climax, a work that seemed overplayed and indeed was last heard from the NSO in 2014. Gaffigan played it extremely straight with this most deceptive and atmospheric piece, not concerned with covering the obscure opening in murky clouds of sound. Snippets of the principal melody were heard front and center in a motley range of instruments, rather than muffled by a haze of smoke. When the piece finally burst out of the gate, there was little surprise generated as a result.
Gaffigan’s focus was more on the flash and sizzle of the piece, which the NSO rendered heavy on the loud and brash stuff. The performance also disappointed a bit in its rhythmic straightforwardness, with nowhere near the quantity of boozy rubato smothered all over the place, which the piece can certainly sustain.
It was just mean to program the “Carousel Waltz,” the little pantomime number Richard Rodgers composed for the start of the musical “Carousel,” on an evening that ends with “La Valse.” The best Gaffigan could do with this somewhat repetitive work, which sounded like a plain Jane wallflower next to the slinky Ravel, was give it some Hollywood sweep. The orchestration, played here by Don Walker, was heavy on the brass and percussion, to the detriment of the strings.
Dvorak’s “American Suite” (A major, Op. 98b) was at least new to the NSO, with just one movement played earlier this season on a preview concert. It will probably be quite a few years before it is heard here again, as it is not the composer’s best work. One waits and waits for something memorable to come along, but it largely remains benign and a little soporific. The playing was generally fine, with pretty oboe solos, but some of the themes had worn themselves out long before the last time they were repeated. The composer went a little haywire with the triangle, especially in the last movement, which the percussionist or the conductor should have soft-pedaled.
The longest work on the program was Kurt Weill’s sung ballet “The Seven Deadly Sins,” which should be a delicious little romp of caustic cabaret. Rock singer Storm Large performed both of the split-personality Anna roles, with a microphone on a loud setting to make sure she could carry over the orchestra. The English translation, slightly modified from that of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, nevertheless was sometimes hard to understand; a printed libretto arrived late and was provided only as one left the hall to go home. The bass part of Anna’s mother was belted out by the strongest member of the vocal quartet, Hudson Shad, who was also amplified. The high tenor part, mostly brayed, gave out at the top note toward the end of the solo in the “Covetousness” movement.
This program repeats Saturday. The Weill will be the centerpiece of a “Declassified” program from the NSO, followed by Storm Large singing cabaret songs.