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NSO and Midori in Mozart, Schwantner, Hindemith and Tchaikovsky

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W.A.Mozart, Symphonies Nos.36 & 38,
C.Mackerras / Prague ChO

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Not surprisingly, Mozart pops up on programs with great regularity this year, which makes for a wonderful opportunity to check in on the progress that the orchestras are making in playing the music of this easiest, most difficult, composer. The choice of the Prague Symphony (no. 38, K. 504) was a good one for the National Symphony Orchestra – it is the first of the late symphonies of Mozart, bigger than preceding opera in that genre. The slow opening of the first movement underscores the novel character only further, employed only once before, in the "Linz."

It was all well played, except woodwinds, which were uninteresting and shy. I guess they may not have even been audible at the back of the house. The orchestra didn’t impress with light-footed playing, although that wasn’t all that necessary since the musicians had been set on a good course, followed it with some aplomb and vigor, and produced a mostly faultless performance that was enjoyable, more coherent than the recent Linz (despite full strings), and a bit boring.

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J.Schwantner, Orchestral Works,
A.Litton / DSO

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Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Years Have Been Kind to Former Prodigy (Washington Post, February 24)

Meet the Composer:

This afternoon (Friday, February 24, 2 to 4 pm), composer Joseph Schwantner will speak at the Catholic University of America School of Music (Ward Hall, Room 127), as part of the Music Visiting Composers Series, followed by a master class with composition students. For more information, contact Andrew Simpson, associate professor, at 202-319-5564 or
I was happy to see a work of American Joseph Schwantner on the program, especially since a lovely disc with his music (“Angelfire” and other orchestral works – hyperion) had just crossed my desk, recently. His bombastic, tamely tonal, and sweeping orchestral prelude Morning’s Embrace was a rousing, pleasant world premiere to witness. A Heldenleben-sized orchestra and an almost Missa Latina-proportioned rhythm section (far more tastefully employed!) combined for a twenty-minute-long abstract tone poem that started with a touch of late minimalism, then stuck largely to a musical language not far from, say, Hovhaness, and ended with sounds where I was – literally – reminded of Messiaen. Inspired by nature, New Hampshire sunrises, to be precise, it is an NSO commission for its 75th season and was finished just last November. Most of its power is derived from build-ups that place layer upon layer (Shostakovich, Glass) to ratchet up the pressure. All subsides in an elongated pastoral episode where the threats and thunders are mere hints and reminiscences… before the final leg is a triumphant, strong-faced cruise into timpani-infested waters from which the strings emerge unscathed. Only then does it wither away to a rather cheesy section that loses coherence over the last few dozen bars. A fine addition to the catalogue of one of our finest contemporary composers… if not his best.

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P.Hindemith, Orchestral Works

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Written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary, the 1930 Concert Music for Brass and Strings, op. 50, is a gorgeous workout for brass with friendly and at times virtuosic support from their string colleagues. Once among the most important composers of the 20th century, Hindemith has fallen somewhat out of favor. In part because he turned his back on the avant-garde when such a move was still risky for a composer’s reputation. Not quite as unique and lushly Romantic as Richard Strauss (whose music and career took a similar turn), he hasn’t recovered in estimation since. Anyone who listened to the iron boots of the Concert Music dancing away so smoothly, pulsating so vigorously, shimmering so seductively as they did under the very fine direction of Leonard Slatkin will have changed their mind. It’s undoubtedly conservative music that Hindemith wrote for the American audience and orchestra under Koussevitzky – but nothing sugary about it, if less angular than works by Hartmann, Fortner, or Egk. The mouth waters for more Hindemith from the NSO, who have already presented the Mathis der Maler Symphony earlier in the season.

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P.I.Tchaikovsky, "Music that stinks to the Ears"
V.Repin / V.Gergiev / Mariinsky

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For the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the soloist was Ryo Goto’s older sister, Midori Goto – known in the western world symply as “Midori.” Gentle in the first few notes, she soon squeezed everything out of Tchaikovsky; fond of extremes in speed and with deliberate ac- and de-cellerandi. Along with that came a supple tone from her instrument (around which she wrapped herself like a python with digestive difficulties) that perfectly fit the expectations one might have of the ‘Tchaik’. The orchestral accompaniment had delightfully detailed moments. It was the Romantic blockbuster everyone must have hoped for. And while sans particular new insights or novel touches, it was miles from routine noodling. A grand performance of the kind people hope for when they go to the Kennedy Center with Tchaikovsky heading the bill. I saw few, possibly none, of the audience leave with something other than a big smile. Smile again, if you wish, tomorrow, Friday, or Saturday at 8PM.