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Michael Stern at the NSO Helm

Where there is Sibelius, chances are you can find Robert R. Reilly. Thanks to him for contributing to ionarts again with this review of the NSO's concert on Thursday. You can read his latest column for InsideCatholic here.

Thursday evening (1/14/10) at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, conductor Michael Stern, the music director of the Kansas Symphony, took the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra for a very appetizing program of Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Emanuel Ax, and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2. It was a success. Stern is strong leader, and the NSO responded to his direction with first-rate playing.

Stern’s approach is that of a builder. He looks into the music, sees its endoskeleton, and very deliberately goes about constructing it so it can stand up straight. Sometimes, as in the Sibelius, he does this slowly, but the level of concentration he employs keeps things together. This interpretive approach may sacrifice some excitement and spontaneity, but it has its compensations. There is no exaggeration or flamboyance, but what you get is the integrity of the work itself, deliberatively presented. This works if you have individual musicians of a very high caliber to build the musical edifice. Exposed as they are, you either play brilliantly well, or fall flat on your face. Throughout every section, the NSO players chose the former.

This, of course, is a generalization, but it applies to the Barber Symphony performance. It lacked wildness, edginess and ache, but the climaxes were flawlessly built—as in the conclusion to the opening Allegro. In the Allegro molto, Stern had the NSO winds on point and captured the rhythmic vivacity of the movement. When the strings entered, they caught the telegraphic intensity perfectly. Kudos to the principal oboist, Nicholas Stovall, who floated the theme of the Andante tranquillo, with just a bit of vibrato, over the cushion of strings. When the strings took over, they set full sail into the most Romantic part of the work, which then achieved a grandness and opulence worthy of an American Respighi.

The Beethoven concerto was the exception to my generalization. Stern and the NSO, along with Emanuel Ax, utterly succumbed to the charm—a word not always associated with Beethoven—of this late Classical work, composed in 1795 before Beethoven hit his titanic stride. The scale is Mozartian and the content sometimes operatic. Like Mozart, it sings. Ax’s crystalline playing was infused with a spirit of delight and, where appropriate, a sense of playfulness. The NSO and he were partners in nuance; completely in synch. It was impressive to hear how fully the players were able to capture the Classical ethos, sandwiched as they were between two highly Romantic works. A sheer pleasure to listen to, this performance of Beethoven was worth going to for and by itself.

Stern clearly knows how to sustain the long line in Sibelius and inexorably build to the transcendent climaxes. The first movement was a lesson in how to get it architecturally exactly right. He and the NSO kept everything clear but not at the price of the underlying sense of mystery so essential to this music. The orchestra—brass and strings particularly—again excelled. In the heart of the second movement, Tempo andante, ma rubato, Stern held his dangerously slow tempi together by dint of his concentration, tethered always to the long line. The final movement made the tiered build up of the final, exultant climax felt, but less charged or exciting as it could be. This is not the only way to do this symphony, but it was interpretively coherent and brilliantly well delivered.

There were some empty seats and there should not have been. Anyone attracted by this program of works is in for a treat.

It repeats on Friday at 1:30 PM and Saturday at 8:00 PM. Charles' concert preview & CD Review of Stern's latest disc can be read here. A discography of Michael Stern can be found here.

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