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NSO Pops the Bubbly in January

available at Amazon
Tchaikovsky, Rococo Variations,
M. Maisky, Orpheus CO

available at Amazon
Dvořák, Sy. 8/9, Budapest FO,
I. Fischer
This weekend's concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra capped off one of the ensemble's strongest months of programming in recent memory. January's concerts have featured impressive soloists like Nikolaj Znaider and talented conductors like Michael Stern, in pieces that are not heard all that often. If the execution was not always what one might have hoped, there was still much good music to be heard. At Friday night’s performance of this week's program, Principal Conductor Ivan Fischer seemed utterly relaxed, opening with the Three Dance Episodes from Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town. These jocular, swinging pieces are Bernstein at his best, not overreaching in ambition for longer forms but happy enough just to please with clownish syncopation and jazzy melodic fragments.

The NSO took that idea and ran with it, the low winds murmuring under the bluesy trumpet in Lonely Town: Pas de deux and principal clarinetist Loren Kitt a raucous clarinet solo and easy-going alto sax in Times Square: 1944. At some points, especially the low down and dirty sections of the last movement, one certainly had the impression that someone should have been taking it all off. It was nice to hear music like this not in the context of a gala season opening concert or a Pops program. Continuing in the spirit of a gala program, Mischa Maisky appeared, to play not a grand concerto but two lighter pieces that showcased his rich, Romantically arched style of playing. The tone has bite and edge at times but can evaporate into a silky whisper, not unlike a large, operatic voice, which is what he channeled in an arrangement of Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for chamber orchestra. (You can hear Valery Gergiev conduct the whole thing at the Kennedy Center next month, again as part of this year’s Focus on Russia program.) Maisky filled the gloomy melody with nostalgia, the air heavy with the disaster that we know will befall Lensky.

It may have been wiser to open with the much less satisfying Tchaikovsky piece, the Variations on a Rococo Theme, which Maisky played well but with some of the more intricate finger work, especially near the beginning, not always in tune (a lack of precision that marred his Bach suites at the National Gallery of Art in 2004). The piece generally works better with a lighter-toned player, but Maisky gave gorgeous shape to the slower, melody-rich passages (especially the minor-mode seventh variation), danced with liquid ease high on the A string, and played the cadenza-like opening to the eighth variation brilliantly. Not even your jaded critic could complain about hearing Maisky apply the same oozing technique to another Tchaikovsky selection as an encore, the rueful D minor nocturne.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, An NSO program to wet the whistle (Washington Post, January 29)
Some of Fischer's best work with his other ensemble, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, at least as heard in recording, has been in music of central European composers like Kodály, Bartók, and Dvořák (Mahler, too, if we go by modern national boundaries). This performance of Dvořák's eighth symphony was one of Fischer's best attempts to recreate that success with the NSO: a malleable, burnished, stylistically (if not technically) note-perfect rendition. The first movement had heroic swagger, and the second had dancing grace, with that little ticking wind motif kept smooth and chime-like. The equally light-footed third movement had a grand sense of surging and receding power, with the many cross-rhythms not drawing attention to themselves but just pulsating beneath the texture, enlivening it. Fischer did not indulge the last movement's softer passages, which always moved ahead, and the lasso gesture he used to unleash the horns' manic outbursts was classic.

This program repeats tonight (January 30, 8 pm), for anyone willing to brave the snow. The next program from the NSO will feature conductor James Gaffigan and pianist Denis Matsuev (February 18 to 20), previewed earlier this week.

1 comment:

Sue Heineman (NSO principal bassoon) said...

actually the clarinet solos in the Bernstein were assistant principal Eugene Mondie, and the sax solos NY freelancer Al Regni -- both excellent players!