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NSO Ends Season with a Modern Bang

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W. Lutosławski, Concerto for Orchestra (inter alia), Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra, W. Lutosławski
The regular season of the National Symphony Orchestra came to a memorable close last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Before heading off for summer shits and giggles at Wolf Trap, the ensemble brought back Witold Lutosławski's virtuosic Concerto for Orchestra, not heard from the NSO since 1998, pairing it with the one-night-only local premiere of the new piano concerto by James MacMillan, Mysteries of Light, completed in 2008 and premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra in 2011. It was daring programming that rewarded the hard-working musicians, who gave one of their finer performances of the season.

It was a rare enough thing to have heard one Lutosławski piece performed this month, but two is pretty much unheard of around these parts. Where the later Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux is experimental and just downright weird -- a good weird, but still -- the earlier Concerto for Orchestra is sheer delight, in harmonic adventure, melodic appeal, rhythmic complexity, and most of all, orchestrational variety. The word tour de force truly applies. Most of the melodic material comes from a collection of Polish folk songs, treated in a fragmented, repetitive, motivic way. Stasis is one of the piece's hallmarks, with an F# pedal in the opening of the first movement later pinged by the celesta in a section for woodwinds and high strings. The second movement's rushing runs were stunningly fast but with pleasing subtlety, down to the enigmatic coda in the double basses and percussion. The passacaglia of the third movement began suavely, shot through with bluesy touches, the many orchestral colors and metric shifts preventing the relentless triple meter from becoming monotonous.

This was the NSO debut of conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, who took over the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra after Mario Venzago's contract was not renewed. He had a clear beat and a no-nonsense way of helping the musicians shape the music, rarely seeming at odds with them. He did have a regrettable tendency to use his cue hand to give showy gestures, like little finger flicks for trills or grace notes here and there, which were meant only for the audience's benefit. Still, he coaxed some murky pianissimi from the musicians in the second movement of the first suite from Grieg's music for Peer Gynt, "Åse's death." The strings, in particular, had a unified and pretty sound in this piece, leading a manic dance in "In the Hall of the Mountain King."

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Polish conductor, Kennedy Center organ impress as NSO closes season (Washington Post, June 21)

Robert Reilly, Second Opinion: NSO with Tough MacMillan Nuts, Lutosławski Excitement (Ionarts, June 21)
MacMillan's new piano concerto struck me in much the same way as his second piano concerto did, its five movements, each representing one of the Luminous Mysteries added to the Rosary by Pope John Paul II in 2002, forming a multistylistic melange. MacMillan's Catholic devotion was on display in the quotation of Gregorian chant, most prominently the incipit of the Ave Maria chant, heard in increasingly dissonant settings, often hammered out like a motto (some of the rest of the chant is heard later). At the keyboard, Jean-Yves Thibaudet handled the often frenetic solo part with aplomb, a sort of commentary, sometimes urgent and sometimes reflective, on the mishmash of sounds from the orchestra. Each mystery had odd touches: the brass fanfare and trombone chorale of "Miraculum in Cana," the piano's atonal bird songs (a tribute to another Catholic modernist, Olivier Messiaen) against lush low string strings in "Proclamatio Regni Dei," a hymn tune that rose above multimetric chaos in "Transfiguratio Domini Nostri." It would be hard to meditate to this music while praying the Rosary, which was not MacMillan's goal, but it made for fun and diverting listening.

The evening was capped by only the second "Postlude" recital on the new Kennedy Center Concert Hall Organ this season, a series that the NSO hopes to broaden next season. At the console was Russell J. Weismann, whom I know from my time singing in the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, who charmed in both his spoken introductions to the pieces and how he played them. He brought out the instrument's many colors, including the rather awful "Filene" stop, the only set of pipes that was kept from the old instrument that this organ replaced. The brief recital concluded with a trashy showpiece, Dudley Buck's Concert Variations on the Star-Spangled Banner, which was everything I dreaded it would be. If you were wondering if the American national anthem's melody could be made into a fugue, wonder no longer.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night, with Saint-Saëns's fifth piano concerto unfortunately replacing the MacMillan piece and no organ recital.

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