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9.9.05

Ready. Set. Play: NSO with Weilerstein & Oundjian

Photo by Christian Steiner
Alisa Weilerstein
It’s good to have the concert season getting back into gear, and some of the first notes were emitted by the National Symphony Orchestra in a rousing if not extraordinarily imaginative Capriccio Espagnol, Rimsky-Korsakov’s op. 34, which gave concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef ample opportunity to showcase her skill. The harpist (Elisabeth Blakeslee?), too, must have been happy to be allowed to really go to town in this work that makes a wonderful variety of noises. I was going to say something about the Capriccio ‘displaying a multitude of orchestral colors’ but then thought of Mahler, Sibelius, and Debussy and realized that ‘color’ was not quite the word to describe the simpler and more obviously appreciable Rimsky-Korsakovian tricks. Dazzling and brilliant it certainly was, and its performance under conductor and ex-Tokyo Quartet first violin Peter Oundjian was much appreciated by the audience in the maybe two-thirds-filled Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme is another gem. Less dazzle but yet even more beauty. I used to listen to it excessively because it was tacked on to one of the finest Dvořák Cello Concerto recordings, but even so I had forgotten how the first bars sound like Enigma Variation segments cut into four small blocks and put together just slightly askew. The 23-year-old Ms. Alisa Weilerstein (looking even younger than that) gave an explosive and almost flawless account of it. Although her tone was on the lighter side, she was never overpowered by the orchestra. It was a rewarding performance (excellent pianissimos) and if, for a short while during the final octaves, the sound reminded me of someone speaking not with a lisp but that wet, side-of-the-mouth Donald Duck tone, that was itself more noteworthy for how vividly that image was evoked in my mind (I know someone who speaks just like that) than for how it distracted from the performance.

After two substantial appetizers, a rigorous Eroica Symphony capped the evening off in style. Crisp opening beats marked the gate through which Romanticism entered the symphony. For all its observing the retrofitted metronome markings of Beethoven, it wasn’t a light interpretation and still brought plenty of mass with it. At moments, especially in the first movement, I found the going a bit choppy. If the funeral march really did adhere to the metronome markings, Maestro Oundjian had the pulse beating slow enough to suggest a calmer tempo than expected. The third movement seemed perfunctory, but the fourth movement displayed transparency and highlighted the fugal introduction in a way that made me immediately think of his chamber music credentials.

I expect much more to come this season, but the concert was a nice opener with popular works well played. Weilerstein’s contribution stood out, particularly. A repeat performance takes place tonight at 8 PM. Tim Page’s review can be read here.

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