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NSO Powders Its Face

Hannu Lintu
Conductor Hannu Lintu
The folks at Detritus Review do not generally like critics to make this observation, but there had to be some connection between this week's 20th-century program from the National Symphony Orchestra and the paltry audience in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Friday night. Conservative listeners can latch onto certain names in a program and decide that this is the week to stay home. That's a shame, because it was one of the best programs heard from the NSO in quite some time -- they are on a roll this month -- full of unexpected delights and references to American popular music. Any program that combines two works never before played by the orchestra with two pieces last performed over a decade ago presents a welcome change to these ears.

The adventurous program was apparently already in place when rising Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang, a protegée of Lorin Maazel's at the New York Philharmonic, was slated for the podium. Zhang withdrew from these concerts, due to "the need to extend maternity leave" according to the Kennedy Center Web site, but her appearances in January and February have included guest spots with the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Carnegie Hall. The NSO was able to keep the program intact by bringing in Hannu Lintu, the 40-something Finnish maestro who will take over as Chief Conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic this fall, as Zhang's replacement. He is apparently a quick study and, in fact, just conducted one of the works on the program, the Divertimento arrangement from Stravinsky's Le baiser de la fée, last week with the Houston Symphony.

The Divertimento, drawn from Stravinsky's attempt to compose a Tchaikovsky ballet for Ida Rubinstein's new ballet company, received the strongest performance. My aversion to Tchaikovsky's music can be lessened if it is conducted in as clear-cut and non-soupy way as possible: in short, if you conduct Tchaikovsky as if it were actually Stravinsky, which is what the Divertimento is (Stravinsky used scraps of Tchaikovsky scores as the basis for his music), it really works. The ensemble was extremely tight, with memorable sounds from the low winds and brass in the heavy-footed Dances suisses section and a lustrous, long-lined solo from Principal Cellist David Hardy, over bell-like harp accompaniment, in the pastoral final movement. At times Stravinsky's mimicry is truly startling, as in the Scherzo, whose enigmatic chords create as menacing a feel for the eponymous fairy as anything in Sleeping Beauty.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, From the NSO, an Unbalancing Act (Washington Post, February 27)
The most exciting work on the program, one of those debuted by the NSO this week, was the Overture, Waltz, and Finale from Powder Her Face by the accomplished British composer Thomas Adès. This opera on the scandalous life of the Duchess of Argyll relies on snippets of American jazz to evoke the subject's posh life in the 1950s and 60s, from a trashy tango and boozy, Gershwinesque standard (after too much gin) in the overture to the swing strains run through a musical blender in the finale. The middle movement, a waltz of brittle sounds from staccato flutes and piccolo, harp, pizzicato strings, and the clatter of metallic percussion like dropped utensils in a hotel kitchen, showed again how the composer of The Tempest is a masterful orchestrator. Here, in the shifting accents of that waltz, Lintu seemed less sure-handed, but the impression of a performance just at the edge of his control only furthered the impression of a life teetering at the brink.

Popular music also was prominently featured in the Suite from Kurt Weill's Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, with the strains of Whiskey Bar and the sentimental Moon of Alabama featured prominently. As you may recall, the Los Angeles Opera's new DVD of the full opera won a Grammy earlier this month. It is a work that could be rather unlikeable if it were not for all the memorable and fun music, and especially the guest players on saxophones, guitar, and banjo made this performance pleasing. Least satisfying of all was the generally toneless, scratchy performance of Stravinsky's violin concerto, in which the orchestra often overpowered the solo part of Gil Shaham. The work's neoclassical asperity can make it difficult listening, which was made worse by Shaham's often dodgy intonation high on the E string and in the many harmonics and multiple stops, especially in the first two movements. The Coplandesque dance-like gait of the conclusion was better but ultimately the performance did not convince. That is no reason, however, not to take advantage of the chance to hear this daring program for yourself, at the final performance tonight at 8.

After a couple of weeks off, the NSO returns next month with pianist Jonathan Biss and conductor Herbert Blomstedt in a program of Brucker's ninth symphony and Mozart's 27th piano concerto (March 19 to 21).

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