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Second Opinion: NSO with Tough MacMillan Nuts, Lutosławski Excitement

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from The Kennedy Center.

Thursday night, at the Kennedy Center,the National Symphony Orchestra welcomed Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbanski in a program of Edvard Grieg, James MacMillan, and Witold Lutosławski.

Grieg’s Suite No.1 from Peer Gynt made for a nice curtain raiser and warm-up piece. It also revealed the style of the very young conductor, who only graduated from the Chopin Music Academy in Warsaw in 2007. Mr. Urbanski kept the beat with his baton in his right hand, and did a good deal of expressive sculpting with his left hand—almost as if he was playing it as an instrument. I don’t think this was an affectation and even if it was, it seemed to produce very good results. I was particularly struck by the second movement, Ase’s Death, which is a threnody for strings alone, with all but the double basses playing with mutes. The NSO string section positively glowed with warmth and feeling, down to the final, exquisite pianissimo. In the last movement, In the Hall of the Mountain King, Urbanski showed that he knew how to build a movement with the whole orchestra to an impressive climax.

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Charles Downey, NSO Ends Season with a Modern Bang (21.6.13)
I was very interested to hear MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No.3, which was composed for performing pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who premiered the piece with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2011. It has taken some time for me to be won over by this Scottish Catholic composer, but the work that finally did it was his Seven Last Words, an ineffably moving Good Friday meditation. Still, much of his music is difficult, and so were parts of this Concerto. (I would suggest that those who have assimilated the musical and extra-musical language of French composer Olivier Messiaen would not have much of a problem with it. The programmers at the NSO must have known that this was the case [Ed. or simply don’t trust their audience], which is why they have placed Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 5 in lieu of the MacMillan, for the remaining two performances of the program. The piece is subtitled The Mysteries of Light. MacMillan said he wished “to revive the ancient practice of writing based on the structure of the rosary”. The Mysteries of Light title is a reference to the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary introduced by Pope John Paul II in 2002. They are, in English: the baptism of Jesus Christ; the miracle in Cana; the proclamation of the reign of God; the Transfiguration of our Lord; and the institution of the Eucharist.The five movements are played continuously.

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W.Lutosławski, Concerto for Orchestra
W.Rowicki / Warsaw NPO

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W.Lutosławski, Concerto for Orchestra
M.Jansons / BRSO
BR Klassik

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W.Lutosławski, Concerto for Orchestra
W.Lutosławski / Polish RNSO

Even without reading the religious program, one would suspect one from MacMillan’s use of familiar plainsong themes. The first movement is held together by such a theme and variations upon it. The second movement has what sounds like a Scottish dance tune with a hint of klezmer about it, played by the first violin. Almost as if they were holy water, instrumental and orchestral sounds are sprinkled around it. The third movement may be the most immediately appealing, with a glittering, mostly gentle piano part, with a cantabile melody in the left hand, and ornamental commentary upon it in the upper registers of the right. The fourth movement, the Transfiguration, is the one in which I think MacMillan achieved a real sense of the transcendent mystery at which he was aiming. It was magnificent and moving, made so by the extraordinary playing of the NSO and Urbanski’s direction. In the fifth movement, the opening plainsong theme returns, and things end joyously.

Nonetheless, for the most part, this is a tough piece of music for the average listener—or really any listener. A musician friend who was present asked: “how would you know if he hit a wrong note?” I responded: “he played the wrong notes well.” The “wrong” notes were of course written by MacMillan. Thibaudet’s playing was never in doubt, as his mastery was apparent, particularly in the glittering third movement. Nevertheless, this is not a Concerto to which I would be naturally drawn back, except for the transfixing Transfiguration scene, which I would like to hear more than once again.

After intermission, Urbanski offered his countryman Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed in 1954, a decade after Bartok's better-known piece by the same name. This is such a fine piece of music that it can come close to keeping company with Bartók’s masterpiece. I thought that the opening of the first movement, after a few thumps on the timpani, could have used just a bit more grip and strength, but everything was crystal clear, as the theme was passed from the cellos to the violas, to the violins and, then, to the woodwinds. The second entry of the theme strengthened, with the Stravinskian rhythms punched out nicely, and with a chugging ostinato in the cellos. The third entry and following development were done with real muscle and conviction, which showed that Urbanski had been thoughtfully planning this build up from the beginning.When they got the theme, the woodwinds danced with and around each other, with playing that was delectable.

The second movement begins with music that sounds as if Mendelssohn met Bartók in Poland. There is a Mendelsohnian fleetness in the skittering strings, as well as some Bartókian crepuscular murmurings in the upper registers of the violins. This part of the movement is designated Capriccio notturno and earns its title in this thoroughly delightful music. Double bass pianissimo pizzicato playing opens the final movement. As its name would suggest, the Concerto gives each section of the orchestra an opportunity to shine, and this was the turn of the double basses. And shine they did. Urbanski then layered in each part of the orchestra seamlessly and generated some wonderfully propulsive playing, at one point seeming to give an imitation of a toreador with his full body gestures. I don’t mean to suggest mere theatrics on his part; the orchestra responded vigorously because it clearly understood what he wished to convey. I will make sure to be in the audience when this young man returns to Washington.

I have to confess that I only knew the Concerto for Orchestra from recordings, including one by the conductor who gave the work’s premiere, Witold Rowicki. As much as I liked the work, Urbanski’s and the NSO’s exciting performance has raised it in my estimation. I think I now love it. The NSO proved how much it had to show off (did I forget to mention how good the string section was throughout, to say nothing of the timpani?), and Urbanski knew how to let them do it, and more.

The program, with the Saint-Saens’s substituted for the MacMillan, will be repeated on Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22. Anyone in the Washington environs should know that the Lutosławski particularly is a performance not to be missed.

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