The week has brought an unbuttoned, enjoyable program from the National Symphony Orchestra.
Neeme Järvi, the distinguished Estonian conductor, guided the group with an efficient and relaxed hand through colorful works of Kodaly, Liszt and Prokofiev. You could see the confidence and enjoyment he engendered in the faces and body language of the players.
Järvi has possibly the largest repertoire of any conductor, past or present. In a lesser artist, that focus on breadth rather than depth would reveal itself in slapdash, shallow music making. Although there were indeed some slapdash moments Thursday night, they were slips of execution, not leadership. And though Järvi keeps his head in the score more than most conductors, he is completely on top of the music.
He is all business — every gesture is solely for the orchestra (rather than the audience), and if the orchestra doesn’t need anything at a given point, he doesn’t do anything. That makes the directions he does give all the more potent; it also conveys a sense of trust to the musicians, which becomes mutual even through the occasional misstep. (The odd exception was the unaccompanied viola solo in Kodaly’s “Háry János Suite” — Daniel Foster most certainly didn’t need the maestro standing over him conducting nuances as he played.)
The Kodaly is a narrative orchestra showpiece from 1926 in the manner of “Scheherazade.” Its central movement, “Napoleon’s Battle,” is clearly one of the main templates for generations of Hollywood composers. It gave the NSO brass and percussion a nice workout, the former not ideally steady or firm, but enjoyably earthy. Oddly, the orchestra hadn’t played it in nearly 30 years, but Järvi’s calm, sometimes droll leadership kept everything upright. The work also features a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammer dulcimer), expertly played by Laurence Kaptain.
In an extended set of excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” (an NSO specialty under former music director Mstislav Rostropovich), Järvi’s no-nonsense approach felt a bit too dry at times. The Introduction and the Balcony Scene were faster than necessary, and his refusal to alter the tempo at all during the various episodes of The Fight seemed unnatural. Certainly more emotion was wrung out of these numbers by Rostropovich. But Järvi’s more balletic approach is valid, too, and he and the musicians got along nicely. The violins showed splendid bite and energy in the sword-fight music, with only the cruel opening of the Folk Dance defeating them.
The evening’s piano soloist, Alice Sara Ott, offered the second Liszt Concerto. Ott is about the same age and shares a record label with 26-year-old Yuja Wang. Both artists seem to offer pulchritude and preternatural technique in equal measure, but on the strength of this one performance, I find Ott the more alert, interesting pianist.
Ott is a mere slip of a girl but digs into the keys with bearlike sounds when needed. And she listens as she plays, seeming to take wing from lovely solos by cellist David Hardy and oboist Jamie Roberts. She gave the impression of searching for a way out of the banality of the piece, and she often found one. I would have preferred something other than more Liszt for an encore (a Paganini transcription), but regardless, I hope this appearance leads to a quick re-engagement.
The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday.
Battey is a freelance writer.