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James MacMillan Leads the NSO

available at Amazon
J. MacMillan, The Sacrifice, C. Purves, L. Milne, Welsh National Opera, A. Negus
(Chandos, 2010)

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Vaughan Williams, Complete Symphonies, London Philharmonic, New Philharmonia, A. Boult
(Warner, 2012)
This month is all about the Wagner in Washington, but the area's two top orchestras are both offering excellent programs, too. Last night Scottish composer James MacMillan made his debut at the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra. As he did when he conducted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2008, MacMillan brought some of his own music, which the NSO last played in 2013, when they presented the local premiere of his third piano concerto.

Welsh National Opera gave the 2007 world premiere of MacMillan's second opera, The Sacrifice. The libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts, derived from the Mabinogion, the Welsh national folk epic, tells the story of a woman torn away from her love to be given in a politically advantageous marriage. MacMillan extracted Three Interludes from the opera to make a rather pleasing symphonic work, played here for the first time by the NSO. The large orchestration creates the impression of a tribal world, with violent twists provided by blaring low brass and plenty of percussion. The first movement ("The Parting") opens with a wild clamor of sound, after which a menacing melody rises through the orchestra. The second movement ("Passacaglia") presents the eponymous bass pattern in the pizzicato double basses, where it stays, eventually doubled by low brass. Heavy use of high woodwinds often gives a screeching effect, perhaps to evoke fifes or other folk instruments. The third movement is faster and martial, the low brass and reeds thumping away on a march pattern, ending in a Shostakovich-like finale accompanying the murder of the couple's young son.

Along with Scotland and Wales, the British program included pieces by two English composers, beginning with Elgar's poignant cello concerto. Alisa Weilerstein has played this concerto, so associated with Jacqueline du Pré, in recent years with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and also the NSO, in 2013. Cellist Alban Gerhardt brought an intense, moody approach to the solo part, rising up forcefully on the A string to bring in the full orchestra in the first movement, and with a big pizzicato sound in the transition to the faster section. He played fast and furious in the Allegro molto conclusion to the second movement, with MacMillan carving out enough sonic space and subtlety of color for his soloist's sometimes small sound. Gerhardt's strengths lay in a tender and introspective interpretation, rather than broad strokes, to which this concerto is nicely suited, making the third movement's delicate softness the high point rather than the heady sweep of the finale.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, The NSO goes to Britain (Washington Post, May 13)
More performances of the Vaughan Williams symphonies are generally welcome, and MacMillan led the NSO's first performance of the composer's fourth symphony since Leonard Slatkin conducted it in 1999. (The last Vaughan Williams symphony played by the NSO was the 'London' Symphony in 2013.) The fourth is founded on a dissonance, a minor 2nd that opens the first movement with a bracing clash, part of a chromatic motif (F, E, G-flat, F) reportedly drawn from Beethoven's ninth symphony and disturbingly similar to the BACH name motif. MacMillan relished the general loudness of the piece, allowing the gnarled mass of lines to clot upon itself in the first movement, but also coaxed lush string playing and cooing brass accompaniment in the second theme.

The harmonic palette of the second movement sounded not unlike that used by MacMillan in his interludes from The Sacrifice, with a beautiful concluding flute solo over the movement's dying embers. The chromatic theme (and a second quartal theme) runs throughout all four movements, showing the influence of Beethoven as Vaughan Williams transformed it into a dancing scherzo theme in the third movement and a triumphant call in the fugato finale. MacMillan again marshaled the NSO forces impressively in the slightly maniacal fourth movement, with a hint of Shostakovich-style banality, as the chromatic theme was obsessively repeated and altered through many diminutions and augmentations, seething with tension.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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