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Gaffigan Keeps It Nice

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Beethoven, Sonatas 8, 17, 23,
I. Fliter

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S. Lindeman, Structural Novelty and Tradition in the Early Romantic Piano Concerto
It is possible to enjoy a concert with no superlatives, a concert that is good, pleasing, entertaining -- just not extraordinary. Such was my reaction to last night's concert by the National Symphony Orchestra, a mostly solid performance that had little to challenge or excite and equally little to dislike. Perhaps it was having to follow a very exciting concert, last week's zinger with Hannu Lintu and Leila Josefowicz, and perhaps it was lackluster programming.

James Gaffigan is a promising young conductor who made a promising NSO debut in 2010. He bookended this program with Mozart, a crisp and chirpy Divertimento in D major, K. 136, and the fallback Mozart symphony, the "Jupiter" (C major, K. 551). Working with reduced numbers of strings, Gaffigan helped the NSO produce carefully shaped lines and a pleasing range of dynamics and colors. Motifs, especially as they piled up in the last movement of the "Jupiter," were all carefully etched in place. His tempos were often pulse-racing, causing more than a few out-of-focus moments in violin runs but also giving an edge to the often-soporific slow movement of the "Jupiter." It may have been a little polite, but it was also perky, mostly polished, and elegant Mozart -- nice enough but nothing to write home about.

Washingtonians hear a lot from Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter, who appears in the area regularly in recitals, the last one just this past fall, and with orchestras, most recently with the NSO in 2010. She returned to the NSO with Schumann's A minor piano concerto, op. 54, a piece whose popularity seems greater than it deserves (although I was surprised to learn that it was last heard from the NSO way back in 2001). Schumann composed the work for his wife, Clara Wieck Schumann, a formidable virtuoso who encouraged him to compose pieces for orchestra, although orchestration was never his forte. As scholar Stephan Lindeman has pointed out, Schumann's work as a critic and music journalist informed this tackling of an old genre: prior to writing his own concerto, Schumann had listened to and critiqued -- and found wanting -- a vast number of other composers' attempts at this kind of piece. He had also spent years beginning and abandoning his own concertos in various forms, all carefully catalogued by Lindeman.

Neither Fliter nor Gaffigan did much to improve my opinion of the piece, although Fliter gave Romantic poignancy to each thought in the solo part, with a sense of rubato that, typical of her performances, wandered to its own individual pulse. There were few technical shortcomings, but the interpretative edge of a fiery, virtuosic daring was mostly lacking. Gaffigan, in keeping with his well-mannered approach to Mozart, kept the orchestra below Fliter's often introspective dynamic level. In the second movement, the longing melodies in the cellos and other parts of the orchestra seemed to pass largely unnoticed by Fliter, who played much of the solo like an interior monologue. Here, as in the Mozart, there were shortcomings of intonation (principally in the winds) and in rhythmic ensemble in the orchestra. Gaffigan gives the impression of a collaborative sort of conductor, which can either inspire solidarity and ownership of collective sound in an ensemble or encourage individual or sectional waywardness. The latter seemed the case during most of this performance.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, James Gaffigan leads National Symphony in odd, unsatisfying program (Washington Post, January 20)
The only unexpected departure was the U.S. premiere of Fluss ohne Ufer (River without shore), a piece by German composer Detlev Glanert co-commissioned by the NSO. It recycles evocative marine-oriented music from Glanert's opera Das Holzschiff (The Wooden Ship), premiered in 2010. The work flows and ebbs from the distant tolling of tubular bells, and its operatic origin give the work a natural narrative quality, growing and receding through a range of evocative orchestral textures. The style is alternatively expressionistic and dissonant, showing the influence of Glanert's most important teacher, Hans Werner Henze, and more tonal, with the oboes flirting chromatically with Wagner's Tristan theme, for example, and some more impressionistic sections recalling Debussy and Ravel. It is an atmospheric work with some evocative qualities that appeal but that ultimately does not add up to much.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow evening (January 20 and 21, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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