Leonidas Kavakos came to the end of a two-week residency with the National Symphony Orchestra by showing a third facet of his musical personality. After shining as a soloist in Sibelius’s violin concerto last week, he gave what was reportedly an excellent solo recital earlier this week with Christoph Eschenbach at the piano. As heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Kavakos concluded by taking the podium for his conducting debut with the orchestra.
Most conductors begin their musical lives playing an instrument, switching later to conducting. Many are pianists. The pianist’s role as accompanist and an ability to manage multiple voices are suited to the demands of the rostrum. Plenty of violinists have become conductors, as well. Toscanini was a cellist; Koussevitsky a double-bassist.
We remember few of those conductors now for their playing, and that is why one has to separate the dabblers from those who have made the permanent leap to the podium. Kavakos belongs in the former category, where he is in good company with violinists including Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell, who remain, for most listeners, attached to their instrument. Judging by the competent but mediocre results Kavakos elicited from the NSO, conducting is not among his many musical gifts, at least not yet.
He began the evening demonstrating the historical conducting role of violinists who were orchestra leaders, playing the solo part of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041. Here, Kavakos could conduct with his bow and body, and the results were not always perfectly synchronized but at least were musically animated because of the leadership in his sound.
As more evidence of the impact of the historically informed performance practice movement, the strings were reduced to 19 players plus a harpsichord brought in just for the occasion, and Kavakos added some charming minor embellishments. This was not quite the one-on-a-part approach favored by early music ensembles, like the performance of the work by Café Zimmerman at the Library of Congress several years ago, but it was a strikingly intimate way to begin a symphony orchestra concert.
Kavakos actually took the podium with the NSO’s first performance of Sibelius’s incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play “Pelléas et Mélisande,” in the purely orchestral suite version with one movement and the vocal part omitted from the original score. It is an admittedly gloomy piece, and the somber English horn solos, representing Mélisande’s forlorn voice, were poignant. Still, Kavakos seemed intent on restraining the orchestra, in both dynamics and tempo, and the results were, not surprisingly, constrained.
He obtained a similar effect with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” draining much of the mercurial color and interest from Ravel’s extravagant orchestration. With stately tempos, sometimes dragged out, it was a rather dull affair, akin to the experience of hearing a metronomic run-through rather than a living, breathing performance.
A large part of what makes a great conductor comes down to magnetism and personality, which Kavakos has in spades. The musicians, who so obviously relished playing with him last week, obeyed his gestures dutifully, but the spark of a great conductor’s ideas, even the sometimes chaotic touch of Eschenbach, was lacking.
Downey is a freelance writer.