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Anne-Sophie Mutter, NSO score weekend double play

Written By | Feb 17, 2014

WASHINGTON, January 17, 2014 – National Symphony Orchestra patrons got an unexpected, weather-induced treat Saturday evening as visiting guest artist, acclaimed violin soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter performed not one but two violin concertos in a single concert in a break from the usual style of program at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Initially, Ms. Mutter had been scheduled to perform the DC premiere of American composer Sebastian Currier’s “Time Machines” on Thursday evening, February 13, and the Concerto in A-minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 53, of Antonin Dvořák on Friday and Saturday, February 14 and 15. However, the weather intervened to cancel Thursday’s performance, the only one during which audiences would have the opportunity to hear Mr. Currier’s new work—a real problem because “Time Machines” (2011) was specifically written for Ms. Mutter.

The solution to the problem was easy if slightly unconventional: Retain the charming and colorful suite from Leoš Janáček’s opera, “The Cunning Little Vixen;” drop the scheduled Symphony No. 1 of Bohuslav Martinů (1942), swapping it for the new Currier composition; and wrap the evening with the more familiar Dvořák Concerto. Score a win for the audience, which got to hear something old and something new as performed by the impressively talented Ms. Mutter.

The only loser, alas, was poor Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959), an intriguing Bohemian-Czech composer who deserves to be heard more frequently in this country. Perhaps his symphony will surface again during NSO’s next season.

In any event, the reassembled program proved to be a violin connoisseur’s delight. An added bonus: the NSO was led by guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru. Now an associate conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra, not only is Mr. Măcelaru a violinist himself. He also hails from Romania, making his appearance on the podium here an almost perfect match, given this conductor’s inherent knowledge not only of the violin but also the nature and character of Eastern European musical traditions.

Maestro Măcelaru’s flair for the latter was perhaps most evident in the program’s opening work, the symphonic suite extracted from Janáček’s opera, “The Cunning Little Vixen” and arranged by his friend Václav Talich in two roughly equal parts. Talich largely retains this composer’s highly original and occasionally eccentric sound, although the arrangement at times is a bit heavy-handed.

Nonetheless, under Mr. Măcelaru’s capable direction, the NSO presented this tuneful, folkloric, and occasionally dissonant score with energy and charm, making it a delightful and somewhat unusual curtain raiser for the two works that followed.

Ms. Mutter then appeared to perform Mr. Currier’s “Time Machines,” essentially a violin concerto in concept even while violating a concerto’s generally accepted three-part form. “Time Machines,” in essence, is actually a seven-part conceptual, theoretical tone poem for violin and orchestra that explores seven aspects or manifestations of time in the world of motion and sound. It is an interesting work, providing a skilled soloist like Ms. Mutter with nearly endless virtuosic opportunities along with ample challenges in the “special violin effects” department.

Ms. Mutter performed the work spectacularly and well, earning well-deserved applause from the audience at “Time Machine’s” conclusion. However, for this reviewer at least, this new work, for all its technical and philosophical challenges, seemed something of a throwback to the least successful compositional pursuits of the twentieth century; namely, a near-total avoidance of conventional Western tonality, and a preoccupation with the theoretical as opposed to the concrete.

As such, “Time Machines” becomes a virtuoso excursion heavy on speculative theory while remaining light on accessibility as well as soul. Most of its movements end up sounding quite similar, giving the audience very little to take home with them aside from an even greater appreciation of Ms. Mutter’s abilities as a superb soloist.

Wrapping up the program in a more conventional and conventionally satisfying vein was Ms. Mutter’s re-appearance after the intermission as she performed Dvořák’s well-loved violin concerto. It blends serious themes with lighter Czech folk motifs, prefiguring, in a way, the later compositions of Janáček.

Mr. Măcelaru and the NSO set the folkoric tapestry for this work and Ms. Mutter did the rest, performing the score with both energy and charm, particularly in the concerto’s jolly, vigorous finale. It was a warm, welcome and pleasant way to end a wintry DC evening for the near sellout audience that braved the continuing and relentless cold to see both a renowned artist as well as a hometown orchestra that was in top form. They were well-rewarded for their efforts.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars.)

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 Senior 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