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Elgar Triumphans, O'Connor Entertains

Covering two world premieres in one night is exciting for Ionarts, and we have to thank Robert R. Reilly, music critic for CRISIS and author of the delectable Surprised by Beauty, who lent us his ears and time for the NSO's performance last evening and contributed this review.

Last night the National Symphony Orchestra, under Leonard Slatkin, performed a varied program well. It ended in triumph.

It was, however, an odd programming choice to put a classical pops piece like Mark O'Connor's Double Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra between two heavyweights like Hindemith's Mathis der Mahler and Elgar's Enigma Variations. Usually that place is reserved for some modern exercise in aridity that the audience cannot avoid if it wants to hear the next piece.

I am not sure if it was I who had not quite warmed up or the orchestra at the beginning of the Hindemith piece. However, Slatkin developed a nice combination of atmosphere and energy, delicacy and grip. He and the NSO showed how beautiful this music can be, found some unexpected moments of stillness in it, but perhaps missed some of the kind of hair-raising drama that other performances have delivered. I was surprised that I was not more taken with this music that I love. Wondering what it might have sounded like at Furtwangler's premiere, I thought he would have given it more of an interpretative edge.

The highly syncopated O'Connor piece made it hard to sit still and, apparently, for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg to stand still. The best parts of this concerto were the dueling violins, performed spot–on by both soloists, that sometimes transformed the concert hall into a musical celebration at a barn-raising in a John Ford movie. There is no sense in taking O'Connor's music for other than what it is: fun. However, there is a danger in taking popular musical idioms and trying to inflate them symphonically. The music usually cannot sustain the added weight. It's like playing salon music with a hundred strings. To O'Connor's credit, he largely avoided these dangers by concentrating on the musical pyrotechnics for the soloists.

Slatkin has a great reputation for his performances of the British repertory. From his traversal of the Enigma Variations last night, he deserves it. From the first note, it was the music speaking to you rather than being played. Seldom have I heard Elgar's music more bathed in emotional warmth and luminous beauty, without loss of passion and drama. Slatkin and the NSO caught the subtlest gradations within the larger sense of sweep. Woodwind and string solos could not have been more affecting. The Nimrod variation was captured in such a way as to almost make time stop before its radiant beauty. This performance was an expressive triumph for all concerned. It will be repeated for the next two evenings.

See also Tim Page, A Double Violin Concerto for Finely Tuned Ears (Washington Post, June 17).

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