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Dream Playing for “Winter Dreams”

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for contributing to ionarts again with this review of the NSO's world premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Piano Concerto. You can read his latest column for InsideCatholic here.

Thursday evening, December 3rd, the National Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Andrew Litton, presented a notable program that included the Suite from Rimsky Korsakov’s “The Snow Maiden”, Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, “Winter Dreams” and the world première of Jennifer Higdon’s Piano Concerto, commissioned by the Hechinger Fund for New Orchestral Works.

I begin with Tchaikovsky, played last, for the simple reason that I have never heard the NSO play more beautifully in all departments than it did in the Tchaikovsky, under Litton. From the subtlest pianissimo to triple forte, and everything in between, Litton and NSO gave a finely graded, faultlessly built rendition—taught, gripping and dramatic, but lyrical and mesmerizing, as in the second movement, when it needed to be. It took no more than the opening of the first movement, with wonderfully hushed strings under the introduction of the main theme by flute and bassoon, to know that this would be a perfectly paced performance. In the Adagio, these forces achieved that thrilling sense of suspended animation that great playing of beautiful music can reach. The strings were luminous. It was a joy to hear the brass blend superbly with the winds before the gentle entry of the violins in the Finale’s opening. But there is no point in further listing instances of excellence with a performance so uniformly fine.

The deeper reason for the success of this performance lay not in the exquisite playing, but in the fact that Litton and the NSO caught the sense of the underlying experience of which Tchaikovsky’s music is an expression. That is the highest kind of artistic achievement. If for no other reason than to hear this, anyone in the Washington, D.C. area should make haste to the Kennedy Center for one of the next two performances on Friday afternoon at 1:30 PM or Saturday evening at 8:00 PM.

But there are other reasons to go, which notably include Jennifer Higdon’s new Piano Concerto. Higdon has gained, and earned, a big reputation for her highly colorful and rhythmically vivacious works. She did not disappoint in this première.

I thought it was a slight misstep on Litton’s part to take a microphone and conduct an onstage interview with Higdon before the piece was played. Let the music stand on its own, I say. We shouldn’t need to be told how popular she is, or what was going through her mind when she composed it. That is what the program notes are for. I applaud pre-concert presentations, but during a concert it violates the theatrical “fourth wall” rule to address the audience directly with something other than the music. In any case, we heard it directly from Higdon that “it is important that music communicates.” Amen to that. Unfortunately, however, Litton asked her, as if it mattered, how many notes were in the piano part. Her answer: “19,615.” (Higdon was fortunate that Emperor Joseph II was not present.)

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO crowd delights to piano concerto's debut (Washington Post, December 4)

Tim Smith, National Symphony premieres Higdon Piano Concerto on colorful program (Baltimore Sun, December 4)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Nonstop Ivory-Tinkling (DMV Classical, December 5)
To begin, pianist Yuja Wang announced the immediately attractive and wistfully rhapsodic main theme. Winds entered to play with and around it. Then the brass and strings came in such a big way that the piano was momentarily swamped. Instruments, entire orchestral sections jumped in and out to double up the piano part or to comment on it. Later, the orchestra ganged up for what sounded like the exotic march or heavy tread of a swaggering oriental despot. Wistful yearning of an open-hearted, Coplandesque kind opened the second movement. The movement also offered a taste of the French sensibility heard in some of Higdon’s music, particularly when she keeps the orchestration light. Which, alas, she did not do often in this densely scored piece, which might be the point of criticism with this piano concerto. Amid the orchestral hyperactivity, it was sometimes difficult to tell exactly where you were. Busy is not bad. Martinů was busy. But there is such a thing as being too busy.

Percussion is the word for the third and last movement (and every modern tonal composition, it seems), which started with a dazzling display of wood blocks, tam-tam, brake drum, and other percussion instruments, soon supplemented by pizzicato strings. I have sometimes thought that Higdon’s rhythmic excitement makes her music seem about to jump out of itself, and so it was here. There is, of course, a very playful element in this, and the wonderful interplay between the piano and percussion was fun and jazzy, at a certain point skirting boogie-woogie. Despite the complicated rhythms and percussion the orchestral balance in this movement worked better and made everything easier to hear. The last movement is, in fact, a tour de force and possibly the most successful of the three. In any case, no matter how percussive the music gets or how exotic the orchestration becomes, the beating heart of an American Romantic is never too far below the attractive surface of Higdon’s music.

I should not neglect to mention the delightful curtain raiser from Rimsky Korsakov, which shimmered and chirped with bird sounds; a fine warm up in a splendid concert. Litton, the NSO, Higdon, and Wang created one the finest evenings of the season yet. RRR

Photo of Jennifer Higdon by Candace DiCarlo

This program repeats this afternoon (December 4, 1:30 pm) and tomorrow evening (December 5, 8 pm).

1 comment:

Lindemann said...

I finally got my review up too. I liked reading yours.