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Kavakos Roars through Mendelssohn

Leonidas Kavakos, violinist
Leonidas Kavakos, violinist
Anyone who heard the last appearance by Leonidas Kavakos with the National Symphony Orchestra, an unforgettable Sibelius concerto, was not going to miss his return to Washington this weekend. Last night, he played one of the other Big Five Romantic violin concertos, the Mendelssohn (E minor, op. 64), to be repeated on Saturday, with a single performance of an even bigger concerto, the Tchaikovsky, scheduled for tonight. The Mendelssohn concerto, as hard as it is to dislike, can be played badly, but that was certainly not the case here. Kavakos, who has technique to burn, tore through the fast outer movements at a breath-taking pace, almost without a single note out of place. As noted of his Sibelius concerto, Kavakos handles adjustments of tempo with extraordinary freedom, a mercurial unpredictability that makes his performances exciting for the listener. At the same time, it poses some problems for the orchestra attempting to play with him, if it lacks the flexibility to follow so many gradations of tempo.

From the opening of the first movement, Kavakos, conductor Iván Fischer, and the NSO had difficulty forming a cohesive unit. At an AfterWords talk following the concert, Kavakos spoke about his way of phrasing, which explained something of the surging nature of his performance, saying that if left to itself a phrase would unfold gently but that if impelled it will have its own spark of energy. This propulsion forward left the NSO players in the dust many times, although there were many calming moments, like the transition to the second theme in the opening movement, where the flow came almost to a stop as Kavakos savored the tender, plangent tone applied to the new theme. Kavakos's approach to music may be benefiting from his recent forays into conducting, since his appointment in 2007 as artistic director of Camerata Salzburg. After the concert, he said conducting has been a long-held dream, motivated primarily by a fascination with the Bruckner symphonies. He noted that the repertory for solo violin has its limits and that he may have reached them (players of even less represented instruments like the bassoon likely do not feel much sympathy for the violinist's plight) and that learning so many new scores for his conducting work, although it takes up much of his time, has given him a more symphonic view in his work as soloist.

The first-movement cadenza displayed the admirable match between Kavakos and his new instrument, a 1782 Guadagnini that he picked up last summer, with pure intonation and present, but not overpowering tone across all strings. Here and in the demanding third movement, the agility and accuracy of Kavakos's left hand were practically faultless, striking a balance between fairy-dust lightness and combustible power.
Daniel Kellogg, composer
Daniel Kellogg, composer
Kavakos also spoke about his new violin after the concert, saying that its tone, if not forced, could fill a large hall like the Kennedy Center's without being overbearing. This was exactly the experience of hearing the simple, radiant sound of the instrument in the slow movement, where even in the B section the melody was voiced with exceptional clarity and with consummate line.

The concert opened with the world premiere of a new orchestral work by Colorado composer Daniel Kellogg, Western Skies, an NSO commission made possible by a gift from the Hechinger Fund. The composer remarked at the AfterWords event that he had cast out most of his first drafts for the commission when he learned that the NSO was planning to take this program on its upcoming tour of China and South Korea. He settled instead upon the idea of depicting in music the mythic expanses of the American West, as seen from his home in Boulder, Colo. He did so with seventeen minutes of music of striking homogeneity, a bubbling unfolding of sound recalling the Klangfarbenmelodie of the Second Viennese School -- from a static repetition that builds and recedes, individual colors condense and evaporate, including clarinet arpeggios, glockenspiel pings, bowed vibraphone irradiations, tuba bleats. Overtones of Coplandesque Americana were everywhere, as well as hints of the Britten Sea Interludes in the second movement (Moonbeams in the Snow), where monolithic brass chords unsettled more stable harmonies. The stasis was finally disturbed slightly with greater rhythmic activity in the third movement (White Mountains on the Horizon), but as easy on the ear as it was there was little to ponder afterward. The composer's program notes read like a Colorado travelogue, to the point that one hopes he received a stipend from the Colorado Tourism Office. The piece may have a future as the soundtrack to future "Ski Colorado" ads.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, For the NSO, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Time Is a Charmer (Washington Post, April 17)
All evening Iván Fischer was a suave and assured guide, with his best contribution coming in the final work, Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony (E minor, op. 64 -- a strange coincidence with the Mendelssohn violin concerto). Regular readers know of my aversion to Tchaikovsky's orchestral music, especially when its excesses, both of the syrupy and sonic boom variety, are overindulged. Fischer did a fine job of moving through the score, as in the agitated first theme of the first movement, perhaps giving in too much to the swooning second theme. This allows some of the more unusual parts of the score to stand out, like the wild growling of the low strings at the conclusion of the first movement, the passionate themes given to the NSO's elegant cello section in the second, and the squawking sounds of the stopped horns in the third. There is nothing you can do with the truly awful coda to the fourth movement, a theatrical flourish of the symphony's fate theme one wishes Tchaikovsky had excised.

This concert repeats tonight (April 17, 8 pm -- with Kavakos playing the Tchaikovsky concerto) and tomorrow night (April 18, 8 pm -- back to the Mendelssohn concerto) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Conductor David Zinman is the star of next week's concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra (April 23 to 25), leading performances of Webern's Langsamer Satz (arr. Gerard Schwarz), Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, op. 4, and the Brahms fourth symphony.

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