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NSO, Higdon, and Lang Lang

Thursday evening’s concert by the National Symphony Orchestra began with the Second Romanian Rhapsody of Enescu. This straightforward work offered neo-folk tunes with ever-changing orchestration. While enjoying the lush string sound of the NSO, one missed any sort of progressive harmony in this young work, written in the composer’s early twenties.

City Scape, by Jennifer Higdon, was next on the program as a replacement for premiere of Higdon's new piano concerto, which was canceled a few months back due to artistic issues between the composer and Lang Lang. While the NSO is still committed to premiering the concerto, one wonders if Lang Lang will indeed be the soloist.

In three movements and commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony in 2002, City Scape, according to Higdon, “is a metropolitan sound picture written in orchestral tones” about Atlanta, her hometown. The opening movement, titled Skyline, begins with bustling activity. The new American value that “being busier is better” is heard in the sense of commotion. This is a fitting sonic description of Atlanta, a relatively new American city that is now facing congestion issues – see Nick Paumgarten's recent article (There and Back Again, April 16) in The New Yorker.

River sings a song to trees is supposed to represent streams, creeks, and rivers giving life to urban parks. This movement offers solos to many of the instruments and has many modulations. Higdon’s work always succeeds in obtaining a wide sound from the orchestra that fills the room with color. Nevertheless, when the music builds and darkens, it became difficult to imagine a river not being compromised by trash, sewage, and industrial waste as it passes through an urban area. Peachtree Street, the final movement, returns to hustle and bustle and contains a short fugue based on a very fast theme. One wonders if there was a reason to program the Enescu and Higdon one after the other - perhaps to contrast traditional and what is now modern folk music.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, From NSO, the Energy of a 'City' (Washington Post, May 18)
Performed just last fall by the NSO, the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto was again programmed. Lang Lang, with his tux jacket always buttoned, shirt always untucked, and tame hair (at least compared to recent promotional photos) was overpowered by the orchestra for most of the first movement. The motivic lines in the opening chords that accompany the orchestra were not voiced, nor would they have been present enough in the room to hear. His first runs of octaves were also weak in tone. Fortunately, the balance between soloist and orchestra improved markedly as the work progressed, as did Lang’s power. Lang was very sensitive when doubling the melody with oboe and flute soloists or accompanying the solo cello, and the long trills of the first movement cadenza fluttered. The machine-gun-like octaves (full of power now) slowed for nothing, begging one to wonder if that approach is indeed Romantic in style. Overall, when compared to what the premiere of the Higdon Piano Concerto could have been, this performance was more like the daily commute – lacking the sense of discovery that a new commission brings for both audience and musicians alike.

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