NSO’s unusual program of Prokofiev, Bruch and violinist Ray Chen

NSO’s unusual program of Prokofiev, Bruch and violinist Ray Chen

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Having concluded their European concert tour, the National Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach returned to the Kennedy Center with an unusual program that included two Prokofiev symphonies and Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy" featuring violinist Ray Chen.

Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen performing live at NYC's Apple Store in 2012. (CC 2.0 via Wikipedia entry on Ray Chen.)

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2016 – After a long local hiatus due to their recent European concert tour, the National Symphony Orchestra returned to the Kennedy Center this week with an unusual program that bookended Max Bruch’s rarely heard “Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra,” Op. 46 with a pair of wildly different Prokofiev symphonies.

Read also: Todd Fickley plays youthful Bach’s organ works at the Kennedy Center

Exciting young violinist Ray Chen appeared as soloist in the “Scottish Fantasy,” a lovely, evocative survey of Scotland’s jaggedly beautiful landscapes and rugged people and folk songs that’s really a substantial concerto in disguise.

Consisting of five movements—two pairs of which are played without pause, providing the equivalent of a concerto’s traditional three movements—this delightful and challenging work begins ominously with a minor key “Prelude” appropriately marked “Grave.” But then, like a flower in early spring, the rest of the work unfolds more brightly into a mixture of colorful highland nostalgia based on a few key Scottish tunes. At times, it reminds us of the Scotland-inspired music penned by another famous German composer likewise haunted by the islands and the highlands—Felix Mendelssohn.

On tap to make the “Fantasy” sing was the quietly brilliant yet remarkably subtle talent of Mr. Chen. The “Fantasy” is not a truly wicked piece, execution-wise. But it requires a real sympathy with the joy and the pathos that underpins Bruch’s score.

I have often found Bruch’s music interesting. But in Mr. Chen’s sympathetic hands, one could almost feel the heart of ancient Scotland beating anew in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. Under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, the musicians of the NSO also did their part, supporting Mr. Chen with great skill in this surprisingly emotional performance. Both the “Fantasy” and the talented of Mr. Chen united to create as fine a performance of this work as one could wish for.

Bookending the Bruch “Fantasy” were an oddly-matched but nonetheless interesting pair of well-known Prokofiev symphonies, his 1918 Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, aka the “Classical Symphony;” and his later and considerably more massive 1945 Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100.

Prokofiev’s First Symphony was, in a way, a step back in time for this composer, whose several previous works had revealed a craggy, highly dissonant approach to music in the early 20th century. His “Classical” Symphony, however, was his own unique approach to the brief flowering of what came to be known as “neoclassicism,” a movement marking a return, of sorts, to simpler musical statements and forms and also a reaction to the late 19th and early 20th century gigantism of composers like Bruckner, Mahler and (slightly earlier) Richard Wagner.

Much of the symphony sounds remarkably like the music of Haydn or Mozart. On the other hand, this short, economical symphony is loaded with abrupt key switches, tempo shifts, sneaky dissonances and other assorted musical jokes, Prokofiev’s musical equivalent of a “Wink-wink, nudge-nudge,” as if to say, “Yes, the crazier, more modernist Prokofiev is still lurking within this clever look-back on musical history.

The NSO delivered a workmanlike performance of the symphony, one that seemed somewhat peculiar to me. It’s a popular work, and I’ve heard it many times before. But in pretty much all the other performances I’ve attended the second and fourth movements of the symphony, marked “Allegro marcato” and “Allegro giocoso” respectively, have generally been performed a great deal faster, a treatment extended even to the first movement, which is actually marked “Andante.”

Mr. Eschenbach took the entire symphony at a considerably more leisurely pace, however, which had its good and bad points. When the symphony is performed at breakneck speed, it actually sounds a lot more like Mozart of Haydn, which in some ways makes the music more fun. But taken at a slower tempo, as Mr. Eschenbach did in Thursday evening’s performance, actually reveals more of Prokofiev’s musical trickery, enabling the listener to better enjoy this symphony as a masterpiece of musical deception.

I still tend to prefer the faster tempos. But Mr. Eschenbach’s approach did afford the audience a better view of this symphony’s clever inner workings.

To close the evening, the NSO’s program returned to Prokofiev’s music by performing his substantial and highly-regarded Symphony No. 5, composed and first performed at a time when the Second World War was clearly nearing its cataclysmic end.

The Prokofiev we here at this point bears little resemblance to the young enfant terrible earlier in the century. Having returned, unwisely we think, to Mother Russia after successful Western excursions Prokofiev ran into the tyrannical figure of Josef Stalin, the one-man buzz-saw who nearly destroyed his fellow composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Both composers had to be careful with their “dangerously bourgeois” modernist tendencies under Stalin’s murderous regime, and both endured periodic persecution from the authorities when they were viewed as having strayed from to far from the acceptable Soviet norm.

Fortunately for Prokofiev, his 5th symphony—like Shostakovich’s own famous 5th—struck an acceptable balance insofar as Stalin and the Soviet censors were concerned. Prokofiev’s 5th is a towering work that, while employing considerable dissonance, still cloaks it in the thunderous and at times clattering militarism and violence that marked the war years at both the Eastern and the Western fronts.

The symphony is curiously constructed in a way. Both the first and third movements march slowly through the war zone, both heavily employing the tympani and the rolling thunder of the bass drum, almost literally evoking heavy cannon fire. It’s in the second and fourth movements that we move to the infantry, as it were, with the clattering snare drum and wood blocks resembling the rapid fire of machine guns shifting positions at breakneck speeds.

The second movement is perhaps the most compelling, unfolding in what seems to be a traditional trio form, with a slightly slower middle section that’s at once breezy and snarky.

Mr. Eschenbach and the orchestra seemed truly in their element here, delivering a genuinely stirring performance of this epic work. Everything was precise, well thought out and crisply executed, including this symphony’s frequent and abrupt shifts in mood and tempo. Attacks were clean, instrumental choirs performed as one in a genuinely fine performance that can’t be praised enough.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)


Tickets: Program repeats Friday and Saturday evenings, March 4 and 5 at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. Tickets are priced from $15-89. For tickets and information, visit the NSO’s page on the Kennedy Center website, or call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324.

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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