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There Is a Firebird in My Pastorale

Sean Scully, 'Black Fold'
Sean Scully - Black Fold
“Wild’n’Crazy” programming at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall saw the ‘Symphony’ before ‘Concerto’ and ‘Overture’ – with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos opening the National Symphony Orchestra’s concert on a magnificent spring day, appropriately enough, with Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the Pastorale. The programming worked out nicely, after all, because in a way, this popular, beautiful, serene symphony whetted the appetite for the second half: Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin Concerto and Stravinksy’s 1919 version of the Firebird.

De Burgos, who was Principal Guest Conductor of the NSO from 1980 to 1988, conducted with the confidence and steadiness of a Kapellmeister but the lilt and gait that a native Spaniard might more likely possess than a Teutonic time-beater. He safely guided the NSO through the symphony but could not prevent some sour departures from the planned course, courtesy of strings and horns in the first movement and, embarrassingly, the trumpets in the fifth. If marked by unevenness, the whole had a light horizontal drive to it, the freshness of linen fluttering on cloth lines in the sun for the second movement, a soft, comfortable, and wholesome quality: chicken-soup for the musical soul. Turning one’s Beckmesser-counter off, there was a nice dense quality to enjoy from the sound of the orchestra – and a round, full third movement was followed a forceful thunderstorm that reminded of Don Giovanni’s Commendatore scene.

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Beethoven/Shostakovich, Violin Sonata no. 7/Viola Sonata, Julian Rachlin/Itamar Golan
If that had been a beginning marred by individual flaws, the second half improved on all that was good, now fortified with individual excellence. There was a great melding of solo violin and orchestral violins in the beginning of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto: soft shudders shook through the orchestra. The NSO under De Burgos mustered a solid, broad-shouldered sound, yet agile enough to do all the jumpy moves that the score demands. The work can be done flightier, lighter, harsher, or with a greater metallic quality – but this rendition showed it needn’t be that way. Julian Rachlin’s assured, big tone did much towards the success of the performance, surely heard still on the least seats in the Kennedy Center, even in the many delicate moments. Square-jawed rather than sliver-spiderly or modest/agile, he seemed to thrive on the interaction with the orchestra, driving them on to give more. Digging into his 1741 ex-Carrodus Guarnerius del Gesù, Rachlin really got fired up for the pumping, throbbing third movement. Clearly in the driver's seat he had fun taking the concerto to the maximum it can give (and inaccuracies be damned) while the NSO responded with the level of playing that one wishes they’d never play below – and above, on very special occasions.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, NSO Musicians Dampen 'Pastorale,' Soar on 'Firebird' (Washington Post, April 21)

Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Symphony (, April 21)

T. L. Ponick, Violinist Rachlin springs on Prokofiev (Washington Times, April 22)
The Firebird started with NSO-untypical great color from the hushed strings and showed a dynamic range under De Burgos that is seldom observed. The ripped chords through Stravinsky’s most accessible ballet score were “as loud as it gets” (decibels are always exciting in a concert hall – and here they were called for); Lambert Orkis, however, was barely heard laboring away at the piano. No matter, this was the sound of an orchestra having fun, produced an unusually cohesive whole, and was, contradictory as it might seem, very exciting and some of the warmest and more relaxed music-making from the NSO this season. Repeat performances take place tonight, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM. Students might be able to get ATTEND! tickets for the Friday performance.