NSO: From J.S. Bach to viewing ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’

NSO: From J.S. Bach to viewing ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’

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Violinist Leonidas Kavakos pairs both performing and conducting the NSO for the very first time in a program highlighting three very different compositions.

Great Gate of Kiev.
Drawing by Victor Hartmann for the "Great Gate of Kiev," one of the pictures that inspired Mussorgsky to compose "Pictures at an Exhibition." (Via Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2015 – Violinist Leonidas Kavakos is wrapping up his two-week residency with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) this weekend by conducting—and performing—a varied program including works by J.S. Bach, Sibelius and Mussorgsky by way of Ravel.

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos. (Courtesy NSO)
Violinist Leonidas Kavakos. (Courtesy NSO)

Already scoring considerable success with his stirring performance of Sibelius’ difficult Violin Concerto during last weekend’s series concerts, Mr. Kavakos extended his winning streak Monday at the Terrace Theater where he performed an industrial-strength trio of sonatas with skill and panache made better still by his skillful accompanist, NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach at the piano.

This weekend’s series, which opened Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, gave Mr. Kavakos a very different opportunity with the orchestra. While conducting, he also performed as soloist in Bach’s Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, BWV 1041.

He then picked up the baton in earnest to conduct the rest of the evening’s program, which included Sibelius’ rarely heard “Incidental music for “Pelléas et Mélisande,’” Op. 46, and that great old warhorse, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” as brilliantly orchestrated by Maurice Ravel from the original composer’s piano score.

The Bach concerto had an authentic look and feel to it. As soloist-conductor, Mr. Kavakos chose to perform the concerto with a tiny subset of the NSO’s string section, less than two dozen instruments, including the harpsichord continuo typical of the Baroque era.

Composer Johann Sebastian Bach at age 61. (Via Wikipedia)

As with his performance of a Bach sonata Monday evening, Mr. Kavakos, along with his strings, were attempting to reproduce as accurately as possible the sights and sounds a Bach-era audience might have experienced themselves. Ensembles of all kinds tended to be smaller in that era than they are today. Given the small forces needed to perform a concerto such as this, it was not uncommon for the instrumental soloist to also lead the ensemble himself.

Mr. Kavakos and the NSO’s string players seemed quite comfortable with this arrangement, producing a smooth, elegant interpretation of the concerto that was more vigorous and workmanlike than overstated and flamboyant.

As soloist, Mr. Kavakos performed the concerto gracefully and without excessive ornamentation, allowing the composer’s advanced harmonies to shine through with great clarity.

Moving to the podium to lead the NSO, Mr. Kavakos proved an adept and communicative conductor, but one who still needs to develop a bit more vision and decisiveness, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. Mr. Kavakos has the required skill and positive attitude, and the NSO’s musicians clearly like him. But he may need a bit more time before everything finally gels.

The choice of the Sibelius for this weekend’s program was an interesting one. Like many other suites of “incidental” music by other composers, this music by Sibelius is not really his finest moment, compositionally. But then again, it didn’t need to be.

In certain dramas, directors sometimes call for, and playwrights sometimes require bits of music—“incidental music”—to be played between scenes, during dream scenes or pantomimes, or to set the stage for or conclude a dramatic work.

Such was the case with Maurice Maeterlinck’s strange, impressionistic play “Pelléas et Mélisande,” the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers that ends in tragedy with the deaths of both characters.

Maeterlinck’s play, however, is not particularly linear, nor are its characters very well defined. Rather, the play emphasizes emotion over plot, the very sort of play, in fact, that prompts a director to ask for bits of music to underscore those emotions to better convey these feelings to the audience.

Jean Sibelius.
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in 1913. (Via Wikipedia)

Given this drama’s rather depressing overall theme, Sibelius’ music here matches that mood: gloomy, tragic, foreboding, all meant to set a mood underlying the audience’s sense that misfortune is already underway, and there is little within the characters involved that will alter the story’s direction from its perhaps divinely chosen path.

Out of eleven pieces he wrote for a production of the play, Sibelius extracted nine for inclusion in the suite he constructed for concert performance. Each one is different. Most are quietly gloomy. And a few are interesting or even inspired.

“At the Castle Gate,” is set as an introduction to the play, serving as a kind of royal overture with suitable flourishes but also containing hints of the tragedy that is to evolve.

Entitled “Mélisande,” the second piece in the series is almost depressingly plaintive, but features an elegant, elegiac song for solo oboe that is memorable for its sad refrain.

Later on, we encounter a pastoral that flows easily with its waltz-like rhythm, breaking the gloom somewhat, an effect heightened later by a sprightly, between-the-scenes “Entr’acte.”

But we also have the aggressive “At the Seashore,” depicting quietly roiling waters occasionally boiling over with a sudden crash upon the rocks, vividly depicted by loud booms from the bass drum; and the final sorrowful “Death of Mélisande,” which slowly fades away to nothingness to conclude the suite.

In context, this is fine theater music. In concert, however, there’s a bit of sameness in the score which makes it somewhat less than compelling in concert. Nonetheless, such music should be heard and placed in context. Under Mr. Kavakos, the NSO gave a nice reading of this score and its good that we had the opportunity to hear this music.

The grand finale of the evening was Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” via Maurice Ravel’s phenomenal reimagining. Initially written by the Russian composer as a thoughtful and at times extraordinarily difficult piano suite in 1874, the work has intrigued many a pianist looking for something different for a recital program. But few chose to actually perform it. For years, it was popularly judged by many as too difficult to play.

Victor Hartmann.
Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann. (Via Wikipedia)

The work depicts the composer as he attends a retrospective exhibition of artwork created by his recently and tragically deceased friend, a then-celebrated Russian nationalist artist-architect named Victor Hartmann. In his opening and successive “Promenades,” mostly written in an awkward 5/4 time signature, Mussorgsky pictures himself stumbling from picture to picture (he was a notorious drinker), pausing to reflect on several that he proceeds to render in highly inventive musical miniatures.

Today, many scholars tend to dismiss Hartmann’s work as third-rate, and that may be the case, though most of his works have now been lost. But ultimately, at least some of the sketches, drawings and pictures from his posthumous exhibition were made immortal by Mussorgsky’s affectionate and unorthodox musical memorial.

The piano “Pictures” was not really brought to the fore in audience minds until Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter championed it in the 1950s. He recorded it to great acclaim at a spectacular live performance in 1958 in a monaural recording still regarded as a classic by many. (Confession: I still have that original vinyl recording.)

But whatever currency the piano “Pictures” may have had after Mussorgsky’s early death, it was almost entirely eclipsed in 1922 when French composer Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription debuted in Paris who unwittingly jump-started the one of the most popular concert pieces ever.

While Mussorgsky’s piano suite is alternately simple to play and then wickedly challenging when you least expect it, it’s always immensely entertaining. But it can seem two-dimensional when performed on the keyboard.

One senses that this is an epic film trapped in black and white. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we did a remake of this movie in Technicolor?

Modest Mussorgsky.
Portrait of composer Modest Mussorgsky, completed just a few days before his death at 42. (Via Wikipedia)

That’s almost precisely what Ravel delivered, outdoing himself in wit and inventiveness. He fleshed out Mussorgsky’s original score with intense splashes of orchestral color and unnervingly on-target solo instrument choices, adding that missing third dimension. Picture after picture gets its own distinctively unique treatment in Ravel’s score, which concludes with a hair-raising “Great Gate of Kiev” that guarantees a stand-up-and-cheer reaction from nearly every audience.

Mr. Kavakos and the NSO were at their best Thursday evening when performing a few of the most distinctive “pictures.”


“Gnomus,” based on a drawing of a nutcracker in the shape of a hideous gnome. Mussorgsky’s score depicts a growling, twitching little monster in little snippets and phrases of ferocious ugliness. Ravel picks up the challenge, underlining the nastiness with growls in the bass line and snaps and slaps from various percussion instruments. The NSO and its percussionists had great fun with this one.

“Il vecchio castello” (“The old castle”). This musical picture follows the previous one, serving almost like an antidote. The original depicted an ancient castle in the mists with a lonely figure outside. Mussorgsky imagined him as a troubadour, assigning him a plaintive melody. Ravel’s uncanny choice of a solo saxophone to carry the tune is a master stroke. And so, to was the performance of NSO’s solo saxophonist in a picture perfect interpretation.

Maurice Ravel.
Photo of Maurice Ravel taken in 1925, 3 years after his orchestration of “Pictures at an Exhibition” premiered. (Via Wikipedia)

“Bydło” was a drawing of a lumbering Polish oxcart. In another “A” for imagination, Ravel hands Mussorgsky’s oxcart melody to the solo tuba, with the orchestra swelling—augmented by the snare drum—as the cart approaches, then backing off again as it disappears. Nice work here by the NSO’s solo tubist.

“Limoges, le marché.” (“The marketplace at Limoges.”) While feminists undoubtedly won’t appreciate it, this picture depicted women arguing and (presumably) gossiping madly in a famous French marketplace. Mussorgsky’s music conveys this frantic action. Ravel picks up the pace, adding splashes of percussion and bits of sparkly glockenspiel to intensify the scene. Mr. Kavakos and the NSO gave this music just the right hysterical spin.

But this performance of pictures also had some misses:

A small but noticeable glitch in the solo trumpet part in the opening bars of the opening “Promenade.”

Pacing, at least for this reviewer, was too slow in “Tuileries,” which depicts children playing; and in the “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells,” based on a drawing for a set of ballet costumes for dancing “chicks” whose feet and arms were just breaking through their shells. Ravel’s remarkably funny, twitchy, fast-paced orchestration centers in the treble range. The NSO’s interpretation seemed a bit too slow and lacking in barnyard scratching and scrabbling.

Hartmann costume sketch for ballet "Trilby": "Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells." (Via Wikipedia)
Hartmann costume sketch for ballet “Trilby”: “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells.” (Via Wikipedia)

The concluding pictures—“Hut on Fowl’s Legs,” depicting the evil witch Baba Yaga flying through the air in her giant mortar-and-pestle; and “The Great Gate of Kiev”—were crisply performed, particularly in the brass sections. But something seemed odd in the percussion section, at least to this reviewer.

I’ve attended many performances of “Pictures” over the years, and have never heard a performance in which the tympani and the ubiquitous bass drum performed what sounded like grace notes prior to the beat rather than simultaneous strikes on the beat. But that happened here, robbing the overall effect of some of its intended punch. Strange.

In the end, Thursday evening’s performance of “Pictures” was colorful and enjoyable, as always. But it wasn’t one for the ages.

But… let’s put it this way. After rehearsing a piece, the late American rock and sometimes classical composer Frank Zappa, noted the performance was good. But he wanted to try it again, telling the players, “This time, let’s put the eyebrows on it.”

If Mr. Kavakos and the NSO can put the eyebrows on “Pictures” during Friday and Saturday’s performances, good could become great in the twinkling of an eye.

Rating: ** (2 out of 4 stars)

The NSO will repeat this concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings.

Tickets and information: Tickets are priced from $10 to $79. For details and to purchase tickets, visit the NSO pages of the Kennedy Center website.

To telephone for tickets: Call the Box Office locally at: (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free at: (800) 444-1324.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is located at 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17