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The NSO in Dvořák's Cello Concerto and Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe

James Lee III’s Beyond Rivers of Vision – a World Premiere – opened the National Symphony Orchestra’s run of concerts this week, featuring Lynn Harrell in the Dvorak Cello Concerto. Mr. Lee’s work is an easy-on-the-ears orchestral prelude in three parts involving just about all the players on the NSO roster and provides the brass and percussion sections with a particular thorough warm-up. (Massive and varied percussion sections being the dubious hallmarks of many a new composition.) The 31-year old composer from Michigan (now a Maryland resident) keeps this work solidly tonal and conservative ; its notable dissonances in the rambunctious first movement were of the kind that might signal the ominous advance of the bad guys (on horseback and still a good mile away) in a soundtrack to a John Ford Western.

The nature element (imagine the Rockies, mountain-streams, melting snow, dense fir forests, and grassy valleys) is not surprising since Beyond Rivers focuses “on various rivers in the Bible, or men based near those rivers, and on visions connected with those men.” (From the composer’s notes.) With its ever-pleasant final movement (“…and on either side of the river” – following “Hiddekel: Third from Life” and “The 24th Day of Abib”) it appeased the conservative majority of concertgoers into finding a mild liking to it, if not enough for standing ovations. But that Mr. Lee’s well crafted dissertation work will get much more than a tolerant reception seems doubtful. And those audiences that equate beauty or consonance in modern music with meaninglessness and lack of quality or ambition will not give Mr. Lee’s music its due time, anyway.

Dvořák's Cello Concerto is an unfailable winner in concert halls around the world and Lynn Harrell particularly popular with this crowd. His popularity baffles, though: Harrell is neither flashy nor gratuitous, not flamboyant or overly romantic: traits that usually determine popularity more than sheer quality of playing. Instead he is a rather somber player who offered a no-nonsense, muscular, and very brisk Dvořák. None too refined but with longing and feeling wherever necessary; strictly avoiding sappiness. His matter-of-factly (not to say routine) playing was coupled with a big and bold NSO behind him, which went for the swoops and swells with gusto yet without coming across as too roused. Very fast in the first movement and pushing hard in the finale (Allegro moderato), the interpretation came across as self-consciously trying to avoid the pitfalls of over-romanticizing the concerto.

A complete performance of Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe replete with the atmospheric use of wordless chorus (The Washington Chorus under Robert Shafer) rounded the program off. Since the whole work is not very often heard in the concert hall (although the NSO’s last performance dates back to a surprisingly recent 1997), the interest in hearing the unfamiliar-familiar music alone is great. The dancing element for this Diaghilev-commissioned ballet (originally choreographed by Michel Fokine and premiered by Vaslar Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in 1912) is not a necessary element for enjoyment of the music – the same of which cannot be said about most ballet scores except Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and possibly Delibes. A full hour of this music – oddly evocative, subdued, and misty… dotted with martial bursts of vigor and joy – simultaneously makes the case for the piece being heard in its entirety, as well as extracting suites from it... as Ravel did with great success. The glittering and radiant finale (most familiar because of the second suite) was played with much élan and sparkle. Repeat performances take place at 1.30PM, today, Friday, and on Saturday at 8PM.