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NSO offers a showstopping Shostakovich and a buckling Bruckner

The orchestra welcomes Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos for a sensational account of the crowd-pleasing concerto, but strains under the burden of Bruckner’s sixth

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the National Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist Leonidas Kavakos. (Jati Lindsay)
5 min

I did some time in the trenches as a food critic, so let’s give this a shot: Like a solid meal, a three-piece classical program is all about portion control, complementary flavors and the rhythm of delivery. You get your starter, your entree, something sweet for dessert, maybe the after-dinner mint of an encore. Ideally, each bite blurs in your memory into a sequence of pleasant sensory echoes, and a well-fed glow floats you home.

The two-piecer, meanwhile, strikes a starker profile on the plate. The steakhouse approach — meat and a veg. It’s borderline keto. You’re gonna eat the whole thing and it’s gonna send you to bed. As such, it’s a little (or a lot) harder to pull off. Both components need to be exquisitely well prepared.

None of this is to say that Thursday night’s offering from the National Symphony Orchestra — pairing Dmitri Shostakovich’s first violin concerto with Anton Bruckner’s sixth symphony — was too heavy or too rich. It was actually exactingly excessive on both fronts (and a particularly good night for maestro Gianandrea Noseda). Taken together, it was just a lot to digest — i.e. I can’t do that every week.

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In remarks before the performance, Noseda suggested a connective thread between the composers (who missed each other on Earth by one decade) that buzzed with internetty currency: They were introverts! Which is to suggest that Shostakovich and Bruckner discarded flamboyance (the former under a touch more duress to do so under Soviet cultural restrictions) in favor of music that pulls you toward its psychological center.

But another commonality between these two wildly different works is that they were both late to the stage. Though composed between 1947 and 1948, Shostakovich’s concerto wasn’t premiered until 1955 (shortly after Stalin’s death), and Bruckner, who wrote his sixth in 1881, died five years before it was first performed in its entirety in 1901.

Perhaps this pent-up provenance explains the concerto’s general character, which swings between formal and feral. And riding the line between them was Greek violinist and Noseda homie (if their hug was any indication) Leonidas Kavakos, whose 1734 “Willemotte” Stradivarius cut like a hot knife for 36 minutes.

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The concerto is in four parts — five if you count the cadenza that bridges its final two movements. In each, Shostakovich engages in a harmonic tug-of-war between resolution and resistance, and throughout, Noseda elevated its textures and effects as if he were holding the whole thing up to the light.

But Kavakos was the star, offering a sensational, often searing account that felt anchored by a cellular understanding of the concerto’s treacherous terrain. He cast a searching line like a flashlight through the early calm of the first movement, “Nocturne.” He matched the manic energy of the ripping scherzo, its racing flutes and bassoons and its mechanistic climb, which feels charged with the same manic energy of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (the 1934 opera that helped get the composer condemned). And he brought unexpected tenderness to the third movement, “Passacaglia,” elegantly emerging from a churning storm of brass (the whole section in fine form throughout).

The violinist pulled his cadenza horsehair thin, stretching his line into a barely there filament of sound before serrating his edges and ramping up to a sawing, smoking climax. Noseda transferred this energy directly into the orchestra, which pounced on the finale and charged to the finish with splendid precision and locomotive thrust. The audience responded with three unbroken ovations — the kind that feel earned.

It was after intermission that I realized we might have just had dessert for breakfast. Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 in A is no quick snack. It’s a 54-minute, four-movement statement piece that also represents a sore thumb of sorts in his symphonic catalogue — or perhaps an 11th finger.

Suffice it to say, it’s a weird one. At the time of its completion, Bruckner’s artistic tuchus had already been handed to him by critics and fellow composers alike, confounded by the strange topography of his music. His structural idiosyncrasies gave rise to a stubborn adage — that Bruckner “wrote the same symphony nine times.” Some have grown to love it dearly, but more than a century later, I find myself thankful that he wrote the Sixth only once.

At times, I was struck by what felt like an uncanny presaging of modernist tropes that wouldn’t surface as such for another half-century: big, modular, thematic blocks abutting each other, their surfaces decorated with tessellated figures that modulate up and down in a stiff-feeling weave. Here and there, the second movement (“Adagio”) feels preternaturally Glassy.

At other times, I found myself wincing at Bruckner’s bombast and machismo, the heavy unison through the first movement, “Majestoso,” that seems to lead you by the collar, or the back-and-forth between brassy blasts and quizzical pizzicato strings in the scherzo.

Noseda played around with the thickness and depth of strings in the “Finale,” one of many valiant attempts to reanimate the beast. But he wasn’t always able to sustain sufficient momentum — a sluggishness afflicted the cellos and basses, key tensions between registers too often fell slack.

Despite this symphony’s abundance of inventive rhythmic devices, trick endings and jump scares, it felt out of juice by its finish, which was greeted with conspicuously concise applause — the equivalent of placing one’s napkin on the plate and announcing, “I couldn’t eat another bite.” Full, if not entirely satisfied.

Leonidas Kavakos with the National Symphony Orchestra Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center.