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NHK Symphony Orchestra

Tokyo's NHK Symphony Orchestra was less than a day away from its planned departure for a North American tour when the recent cataclysmic earthquake struck Japan. The musicians came together and ultimately decided to go ahead with the tour, even though it meant leaving concerned families behind: only two of the musicians stayed in Japan, because their homes were destroyed in the disaster. In emotional remarks read and translated before the ensemble's appearance Wednesday night at Strathmore, the group's chairman, Naoki Nojima, said: "We decided to come, because we believe that music can uplift the heart and strengthen the spirit. So as we play tonight, not only are we performing for you, but also for our loved ones back home."

The tour's guest conductor, the venerable André Previn, initially declined to make any comment on the disaster during the tour, for which he was, perhaps unfairly, criticized by Norman Lebrecht. To my eyes, Previn was being respectfully silent rather than offering an empty tribute, but he has since decided to donate part of his fee from the tour to the relief effort in Japan. As Jens noted quite forcefully (and I echoed less so), there is a great difference between paying lip service to solidarity with a country in crisis -- "dedicating" an already scheduled performance, for example -- and putting your money where your mouth is. Previn did choose to lead a performance of Bach's Air ("on the G string" as it is widely known), one of the standard pieces for public observation of mourning, and the audience was encouraged to donate money to the Red Cross in support of the Japanese relief efforts. Audience members, including many of Japanese descent, filled the hall in support of these Japanese musicians.

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Elgar / Walton, Cello Concertos, D. Müller-Schott, Oslo Philharmonic, A. Previn
A stalled semi tractor at the entrance of the parking lot delayed my arrival so that I missed the opening work, Tōru Takemitsu's Green, but I did hear the two larger pieces on the program. Elgar's autumnal Cello Concerto (E minor, op. 85) featured the German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, who gave the many melancholy passages of the work a forlorn quality, making this piece, conceived by a rather depressed composer in the midst of World War I, perhaps more suited to reflection on the Japanese tragedy. Müller-Schott is a player of many marvels, but also one who tends to push his tone just slightly when playing with a large orchestra (frankly, he does so at times in smaller combinations, too). Previn did little to help the situation, although the frailty of his gestures at the podium largely lie with the fact that he is moving very slowly and deliberately these days and had to be helped up and down, walking with a cane. Müller-Schott's gush of notes in the spastic second movement rarely lined up perfectly with the orchestra, and much of the fault is Previn's, for not navigating the ensemble better through the shifts of tempo. The loud punctuating chords in the fourth movement, for example, often rippled from front to back as different sections attacked at different times. By far Müller-Schott's best playing was during his solo encore, the gorgeous legato cantilena of Ernest Bloch's Prayer, the first movement of From Jewish Life, offered in sincere tribute to the cellist's friend Yakov Kreizberg, who died earlier this week.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Japan’s NHK Symphony Orchestra puts on a good face at Strathmore (Washington Post, March 18)

NHK Symphony Orchestra quintet performs at local school (Washington Post, March 18)

Michele Norris and Robert Siegel, NHK Orchestra Plays Tribute To People Of Japan (NPR, March 17)

Wah Keung Chan, The show must go on for the NHK Orchestra (Montreal Gazette, March 17)
The NHK musicians sounded at their best in a solid, unified rendition of Prokofiev's fifth symphony (B♭ major, op. 100). Here Previn seemed much more in control, his minimal gestures and cues well timed and precise, in spite of being seated low enough on a stool that there was no sight line for some of the musicians. In contrast to the most recent performances of this symphony under review, with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2009 and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in 2006, Previn and the NHK captured the "grandeur of the human spirit" Prokofiev said he intended in this work, conceived near the end of World War II. The first movement had a nobility and sense of Romantic sweep, with ominous brass -- the strongest of the orchestra's sections, followed by the strings -- and rumbles of bass drum that menace near the end. The second had a more sardonic twist, with a military flash of snare drum, the suave, even sexy trio contrasting with the scherzo-like galop of the A section. Most wisely, Previn, whose musical mind is still sharp, kept the third movement from bogging down in an over-slow tempo, giving it a tense feeling, which led well into the crazy mechanical spirit that percolated through the finale. The only weak point in this fine orchestra was the woodwinds, who contributed some strident and badly out-of-tune playing, especially in the slow introduction of the first movement.

The second half of this week's visiting orchestra diptych presented by WPAS is the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday (March 19, 4 pm). Roberto Abbado will take the podium in relief of the ailing James Levine, with Peter Serkin serving as piano soloist: early reports of the appearance of Andris Nelsons with the BSO make us wish he were conducting here, too.

1 comment:

MUSE said...

Bravo!!! A wonderful review this is and one which, for a change, did not mention Jacqueline du Pre in connection with the Elgar concerto. I shall have to come by more often.