Lorin Maazel, one of the world’s most accomplished and most senior conductors, has entered a glowing, autumnal phase in his career. In rather active semi-retirement since stepping down two years ago from a sometimes rocky tenure at the New York Philharmonic, Maazel has been giving performances characterized by warm, lovingly crafted mentorship — not descriptions one could always apply to this most imperious of leaders.
In Maazel’s last appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra, in 2009, he galvanized the musicians — who were then at the end of a rudderless interregnum period before the advent of current music director Christoph Eschenbach.
Maazel did it again Friday night at the Kennedy Center, this time launching the NSO into a tight, muscled rendition of Berlioz’s overture to “Benvenuto Cellini,” imparting heroic fire to the music given to Berlioz’s violent, swashbuckling hero — the sculptor who speaks truth to power as he fights dramatic intrigues behind a papal commission for a bronze statue of Perseus.
The NSO has not played this overture since 1993, under the baton of then-guest conductor Leonard Slatkin. One did not expect its challenges to come back naturally to the musicians, but Maazel led with such a firm beat, so confident about the many transitions of tempo, that the piece fell easily into place.
After the opera’s disastrous premiere in Paris — in his memoirs, Berlioz wrote of it as being “dragged to execution at the Opera” — Franz Liszt championed the work in Weimar but to no avail for the work’s long-term success. Noting also that “the overture received exaggerated applause, and the rest was hissed with admirable energy and unanimity,” Berlioz went on to conduct the overture many times as a concert piece, honing it into the revised version usually now played.
Liszt also put his mantle over Edvard Grieg’s daring Piano Concerto in A Minor, sight-reading the work when the young Norwegian composer came to visit him in Rome. It has become a favorite, receiving more mediocre performances than great ones, although such pianists as Leif Ove Andsnes continue to make their mark with the work.
Simon Trpceski, a pianist from Macedonia who gave a praiseworthy recital here last winter, has found a way to a major career without winning a major competition, becoming known for his concerto appearances and a series of solo recordings on the EMI label. His NSO debut was distinguished more for its patrician tone than any daredevil escapades, as he took the “moderato” part of the outer movements’ tempo markings at face value. That made the first movement more introspective, allowing Trpceski to give more careful voicing to the solo part and make all the grace notes in the more elfin themes distinct.
The second movement featured plush string playing, providing a warm cushion for the soloist’s reverie, pastoral ruminations in moments of stillness. Only in the third movement did Trpceski seem a little unsure, rushing many of the fast passages, which seem to imitate the vigorous rhythms of the acrobatic Halling dance from Norway.
Maazel’s goal with Ravel’s polished orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” seems to have been to put some of Mussorgsky’s rawness back into the work. The trumpet opening on the promenade theme was brash and almost rude, the various settings of this melody reflecting an urgent, heavy-footed gait. The “Gnomus” movement was delightfully odd, the “Bydlo” movement not as ploddingly slow as often heard, but brutish, and the “Ballet of Hatched Chicks” was irrepressibly cute and madcap.
All sections of the NSO contributed with precision and attention to color, step for step with Maazel in a close reading of the score, renewed with surprises and unexpected thoughts. The brass section, in particular, is to be commended for retaining heart-stopping strength for the “Catacombs” movement and the drawn-out conclusion of “The Great Gate of Kiev.”
In a program that could have been a dreary, “best of the Classics” sort of affair, Maazel never allowed the NSO to fly on autopilot.
Downey is a freelance writer.