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NSO Plays Rouse, Loudly

Christopher Rouse, composerLeonard Slatkin has done well this week in programming Christopher Rouse's second symphony. Premiered in Houston in 1995, it was the most successful work on the National Symphony Orchestra's Friday concert, garnering a warm ovation for the Baltimore composer. This comes two years after the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's most recent performance of Rouse's first symphony, under Marin Alsop. (Rouse will be featured later this winter in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Composers in Conversation series -- March 5, 7:30 pm -- the week that Marin Alsop will conduct his flute concerto -- March 6 to 9.) Slatkin's brief introduction, in a cold-deepened voice assisted by a microphone, attempted to explain the element of color in Rouse's thick, sometimes dissonant, sometimes neo-Romantic style. Whatever you might think, this music "will provoke a response," Slatkin promised, provoking the sniggering of the reactionary and dubious.

It was the NSO, however, that really made a case for Rouse's second symphony, playing with commitment and weighty bombast in this dramatic and appealing work. The outer movements are metrically complicated, with shifting downbeats underpinning the bubbling of mechanistic motifs, with the bass instruments often repeating a driving Stravinskyesque pattern. The percussion play a crucial role, often announcing the transition between sections and at times crashing into the texture with machine-gun or jackhammer pounding. The slow movement, dedicated to the memory of composer Stephen Albert, opens with lush string sound. Poignant oboe and horn moments and a melancholy bass clarinet solo were all played beautifully, as was the forlorn duet of bassoon and violas. All in all, it was an athletic workout for the NSO, not all grace and virtuosity, but well worth the extended applause.

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Rouse, Sy. 2, Houston SO

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Liszt, Piano Concerti, Thibaudet, Montréal SO
One of the points in Tim Page's assessment of Slatkin's tenure in the Post concerned unadventurous programming ("we've heard two renditions of Franz Liszt's meretricious Piano Concerto No. 1 only a few months apart"). Actually, the first Liszt piano concerto is alright by me, maybe not that many times in a year, but the second one seems even less worth my time. Jean-Yves Thibaudet gave a stylish and more than solid performance of the alternately booming and rhapsodic solo part, and the NSO played competently if somewhat unimaginatively. The players can be excused for being uninspired: the work is hardly one for the ages (especially since it was Thibaudet who played it with the NSO the last time, in 2003). A quick glance over Thibaudet's concerto discography indicates several other options, although no more Ravel, Grieg, or Saint-Saëns, please. While one of the Mendelssohn concerti would have been welcome but probably too long for the Thibaudet slot, Richard Strauss's seldom heard Burleske would have filled the time quite pleasantly, thank you.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, For the NSO, Newer Is Improved (Washington Post, January 25)
The concert closed with another crowd-pleaser, Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Although the NSO performed it as recently as last February, this was the group's premiere of Slatkin's adaptation of Ravel's orchestration, premiered this summer at the Hollywood Bowl. Slatkin pushed many of the tempos forward, occasionally leading to a sense of harried misalignment among the players (as in the Bydlo movement, with its fast-moving oxcart, and Limoges). The saxophone solo in the Vecchio Castello movement was suave and mysterious, earning the player a bow, and the winds bickered quite effectively in the Tuileries movement. The best ensemble playing came at the end of the piece, with an ominous Catacombs, a breath-taking tour of orchestral color in Baba Yaga, and a clanging, sonorous Gate of Kiev. The only change apparent in the Slatkin adaptation is the restoration of the the Promenade movement left out by Ravel (between the Samuel and Limoges movements). The ingenuity of the promenade sections is that they take on the character of the paintings around them. Slatkin adapted his arrangement from the opening Promenade, which created an association with the work's opening, somewhat destroying Mussorgsky's intention.

This concert will be repeated this evening (January 26, 8 pm). Next week's all-Mahler program (January 31 to February 2) should be one of the season's best, featuring the sixth symphony and Thomas Hampson singing the Kindertotenlieder.

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