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Măcelaru, Znaider headline eclectic NSO series concert

Written By | Apr 1, 2016

WASHINGTON, April 1, 2016 – The National Symphony Orchestra opened the first of a pair of regular series programs Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall that feature well-known violinist-conductor Nikolaj Znaider in each of his roles.

Thursday’s series concert, conducted by Cristian Măcelaru, offered an eclectic program in which Johannes Brahms’ epic Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77—featuring Mr. Znaider as soloist—served as the centerpiece. Next week’s program will find him on the podium, conducting an ambitious program that pairs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major with Mahler’s towering yet relatively compact Symphony No. 1 in D major. Benjamin Grosvenor will be the featured soloist in the Mozart.

Thursday evening’s program began with Maestro Măcelaru conducting the NSO in a gossamer performance of Fauré’s elegant and well-known “Pavane,” Op. 50, a charming work that got what was otherwise a stirring performance off to an intriguingly low-key start.

Next up was the Brahms violin concerto, perhaps one of the toughest and certainly one of the most durable of many showcases for that instrument. With the power and sweep of a symphony, and sounding precisely like one at times, this concerto is, in many ways, a challenge for the violin soloist that’s just as difficult as “Götterdämmerung” is for a heroic soprano.

Violinist and conductor Nikolaj Znaider. (Photo credit: Lars Gunderson)

Violinist and conductor Nikolaj Znaider. (Photo credit: Lars Gunderson)

Not only is the Brahms a technical challenge. It also calls for a violinist with the uncommon power and technical skill necessary to pierce through the large orchestra that Brahms arrays against his soloist. Yet on the flip side, there are numerous, achingly romantic passages that cry out for a very different, nuanced, and highly lyrical approach.

Mr. Znaider was able to fulfill both roles Thursday evening in a virtuoso performance that offered plenty of flash, insight, technique and volume in the concerto’s dramatic moments, while also demonstrating a fine grasp of the concerto’s more lyrical passages. This contrast was most notable in the second movement where Mr. Znaider’s tonal shading and legato phrasing proved a welcome change of mood and pace when compared to the concerto’s two outer movements.

Of particular interest, at least to this reviewer, was Mr. Znaider’s decision to go with the flashy first movement cadenza created by the famed 20th century violin superstar, Jascha Heifetz rather than the traditional one created by the equally famous 19th century violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom this concerto was actually composed.

Flashy, musically diverse and downright exhilarating, the astounding Heifetz cadenza is a real showstopper, and Mr. Znaider packed it with every bit of excitement and skill he could muster. Small wonder that at least half of Thursday’s audience violated “the rules” and applauded the orchestra and the soloist at the first movement’s conclusion.

At the conclusion of the rhythmic and gypsy-like third movement—another burst of virtuoso opportunities for the soloist—the audience erupted in appreciation once again. Mr. Znaider seemed to appreciate the response and returned to offer a haunting, unaccompanied encore performance of the well-known Bach “Sarabande.” It was a nice touch.

After the break, the orchestra returned to perform—for the first time here—American composer Pierre Jalbert’s newish composition entitled “In Aeternam,” which was initially performed in 2000. Mr. Jalbert’s work demonstrated once again that this country’s younger composers are finally shucking off an oppressive century of relentless atonalism as they not only seek to find their own individualistic musical voices but also strive to regain the contemporary audience for classical music that those relentless serialists managed to lose.

Composers (L) Philip Glass, (C) Elena Kats-Chernin and (R) Pierre Jalbert at Mission San Juan Bautista after their concert at the 2010 Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival.

Composers (L) Philip Glass, (C) Elena Kats-Chernin and (R) Pierre Jalbert at Mission San Juan Bautista after their concert at the 2010 Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival.

Mr. Jalbert’s work also reflected a turn by at least some of our newer composers both here and abroad to re-connect with the kind of Christian music and symbolism the Second Viennese School also handily abandoned. True, previous generation composers, most notably the late Henryk Górecki, also embraced liturgical music to varying extents. But it’s interesting to see these elements still live in at least some of our newer composers.

“In Aeternam” is a highly spiritual composition—a tone-poem, really—that the composer was inspired to write in response to the tragic death of a young relative at birth as well as to rejoice at the arrival of his own newborn son.

Unfamiliar with the piece, I did a little online sleuthing prior to the concert to get a little more background and found this useful passage on Mr. Jalbert’s own website:

“In Aeternam incorporates a fast, steady pulse that stems from Jalbert’s experience of hearing his son’s heartbeat for the first time during a pre-natal examination. In Aeternam is simultaneously a memorial for a niece who died at birth and a celebration of his son’s arrival, mixing grief with hope in a compelling reflection on the fragility of existence. Wrote the San Francisco Chronicle, ‘The piece revealed powerful command of the orchestra and a vivid emotional range. In Aeternam made a listener eager to hear more.’”

That seems to be a pretty accurate and efficient programmatic summation of the music I heard Thursday evening. More specifically, this is a tonal work, at times highly dissonant, written in an ABA format that begins with an incredible, reverential quietness, erupts into a violent and raucous central struggle and then recedes to end nearly silently, just as it had begun.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to regard this roughly 15-minute composition as this composer’s own approach, in music, to the opposing struggles of life and death that Richard Strauss musically described in his own epic tone poem, “Death and Transfiguration.”

Shorter and more pointed, Mr. Jalbert’s approach lacks the frantic “Sturm und Drang” back-and-forth that drives Strauss’ masterwork. But then, this is the 21st century after all. Grief and joy can and generally are experienced just as strongly in our own times as they were in Strauss’ late 19th and early 20th century heyday. But perhaps more personally and not as excessively.

At any rate, Mr. Jalbert’s composition proved a pleasant surprise, though the percussion was perhaps a bit too insistent at the central point of the musical arc, at least for this reviewer. But, not surprisingly, this composition has received quite a few performances since it’s premiere, and it was good to finally experience it here in a fine performance by the NSO under the direction of Mr. Măcelaru.

Better yet—and a bit of a surprise—the composer was here Thursday evening and took a bow after the performance of his composition had concluded. That was a nice touch.

The concert concluded with a flashy, splashy and quite-exciting performance of an old warhorse, Debussy’s still-wondrous trio of sea tone-poems, aka “La Mer.” Most classical fans know this trio of musical impressionist paintings quite well. But that still doesn’t dampen either their enduring and colorful novelty or the brilliant eruption of its final, triumphant bars, executed with a real flourish by Mr. Măcelaru and the NSO.

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

Tickets: Program repeats Saturday evening, April 2 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.

Next Week: Next week’s program, to be presented April 7-9, will find Mr. Znaider on the podium, conducting Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major (with Benjamin Grosvenor as featured soloist) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, often subtitled “The Titan.” Tickets and contact info same as above. Extra Bonus: Organ postlude follows after Thursday evening’s concert concludes. Free to ticket holders. Program TBA.

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