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Gil Shaham and the NSO in Brahms

If the Tchaikovsky bonanza two weeks ago was an NSO prelude, it’s this week’s batch of concerts that really get the season under way. A star soloist (Gil Shaham) and the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner were just two clues at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Slatkin and The NSO, Still Playing Well Together (Washington Post, September 21)

Charles T. Downey, Gil Shaham Opens NSO Season (DCist, September 21)
Opening night had been moved to Wednesday to avoid a clash with the American premiere of Sophie’s Choice next door; this reviewer, Bluebeard-bound yesterday, was at the Thursday performance of this concert.

The Partita for Orchestra by Walton (ToccataPastorale sicilianaGiga burlesca) not only befits the opening slot of a night at the symphony, it also suits Leonard Slatkin (who predictably excels in Anglo repertoire) very well. The seasoned way the NSO and Slatkin had with the score belied the fact that this was the orchestra’s premiere performance of the Partita.

On with a piece of quintessential American classical music: Aaron Copland’s sedative Appalachian Spring… which reached unsuspected heights of serene beauty under Slatkin’s subtle and relaxed direction. This, like the Walton (i.e. ‘anything he truly cares about’), is the stuff Slatkin is best at and where he can still motivate the orchestra to give particularly fine performances. Sonorous and with a steady pulse, the ensemble played like the summer holidays had been a shot in the arm for orchestra and conductor.

Johannes BrahmsGil Shaham, waiting on the second half of the program, is one of the most popular violinists in the region and hearing him in the Brahms concerto is an exciting proposition, even when we have Mr. Shaham in town at least once every year. This concerto and its ‘uncle’, the Beethoven concerto, are the two concertos against the violin. The phrase was coined by the dedicatee Joseph Joachim noting the difficulty of the solo part but better still befits that element in either concerto that concerns itself surprisingly little with giving melody or sweeping themes to the soloist in its quest for general grandeur. Pablo de Sarasate famously rejected the idea of playing a work ‘in which the only melody went to the oboe’.

Gil Shaham – fixated on Maestro Slatkin like an eager schoolboy waiting for a reward (music to play, in his case) – handles the lyrical and bravura passages in equal measure, displaying fiery virtuosity and calm passion side by side. Little imperfections, or here and there a small group of notes shaded slightly flat, did not affect the positive impression he left with this staple concerto. His support from the NSO was hearty and generous, aiming for glorious heft more than elasticity or transparency. What the audience lacked in numbers it made up in decibels during the ovations.

There will be one more performance today – Friday – at 1:30PM.