WASHINGTON, April 18, 2014 – Last week, guest conductor James Conlon and the NSO surprised sometimes jaded musical palates with a fantastic program focusing on unjustly neglected 20th century composers. This week’s program, under the direction of German guest conductor Cornelius Meister, seemed to promise a return to the basics.
Two-thirds of the program highlighted a pair familiar works, Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40” and Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3,” featuring Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky as soloist in the latter. But “familiar” turned out not to be a very apt adjective for describing what Thursday evening’s concert goers experienced: an impressive, mind-blowing, yet highly professional controlled explosion of musical energy and virtuosity. On a surprisingly cold Thursday evening, this was one of the NSO’s hottest symphony concerts of the season.
Thursday evening’s program began with a relatively unfamiliar work, Felix Mendelssohn’s “concert overture” entitled “A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage,” Op. 27.*
An early example of what later became known as a “tone poem,” Mendelssohn’s work—composed when he was just 19 but later revised—paints a two-part musical portrait of a sea voyage. The opening portion of the work musically describes a sailing ship stranded somewhere on the ocean on a windless day. The second part describes perhaps the same ship cruising briskly ahead toward journey’s end, its sails billowing in a welcome squall, assuring captain and crew of that “prosperous voyage.”
The Mendelssohn offered this writer’s first opportunity to experience the conducting of Cornelius Meister, currently serving as music director of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Although he only turns 34 next week, Maestro Meister’s** conducting style crackles with energy and showmanship that belie his age, recalling the more Romantic style of conducting that was popular in at least the middle third of the 20th century.
Unlike some of those barnstorming conductors, however, this conductor’s baton was precise, expressive, and easy to follow. He knew what he wanted and where to go, and communicated his intentions clearly to the orchestra. In return, the NSO seemed to respond positively and with great joy, to his conducting. That was clear from the outset, as Mr. Meister captained Mendelssohn’s mythical sailing ship from becalmed seas to a joyful, celebratory and genuinely happy conclusion.
Mendelssohn’s early tone poem cleared the air, as it were, preparing the audience for the more difficult work to follow, Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C-major,” Op. 26.
Both Prokofiev and, notably, his contemporary, Béla Bartók, were fascinated by the thought that a composer could deploy the piano not only as a colorful solo instrument but as a purely percussive instrument as well.
Bartók’s most notable experiment in this regard is his brutalist and not-too-often performed “Piano Concerto No. 1.” But Prokofiev found far greater success in his rigorous, steely but far more Romantic 3rd Concerto. It remains, unsurprisingly, far more popular than the Bartók even today although the latter no longer seems as radical as it once did.
Piano aficionados expect to savor the Prokofiev’s exciting virtuoso moments as well as its puckish, modernist humor. It was, after all, was penned by a brash, still youthful pianist-composer in the flush of his early glory, and its delightfully irrational exuberance shows on almost every page.
Pianist Nikolai Lugansky, conductor Meister and the NSO all “got it” Thursday evening and laced into this concerto with such overwhelming energy and force that a spellbound audience could not, at times, believe what they were seeing and hearing. Atypically, even the heartiest of coughers and throat-clearers were unusually careful to avoid interrupting a single passage.
Mr. Lugansky’s performance of the concerto, in this writer’s opinion at least, was likely the most authentic interpretation of Prokofiev’s vision that one might be privileged to hear over many years.
This highly disciplined pianist marshaled tremendous percussive power to mount an effective attack the composer’s thick chords and rapid, legato, unison passages. At the same time, he imposed absolute clarity on Prokofiev’s formidable musical edifice by expertly avoiding the heavy, often muddying pedal technique employed by other pianists when performing this same work.
But the Prokofiev 3rd contains many quietly haunting passages of shimmering beauty that require artistic restraint as well as delicacy. Mr. Lugansky handled these moments with equal skill and subtlety.
Maestro Meister and the NSO accompanied the pianist crisply and precisely, applying the geometric right angles the orchestral part requires as the musicians move in and out of the soloist’s range of fire. The final result of this team effort was a viscerally exciting, definitive performance, the likes of which one rarely gets a chance to hear up close and personal. It seemed meticulously planned and almost flawlessly executed by conductor, orchestra and soloist alike.
As the concerto’s third and concluding movement closed with its familiar “thump-BOOM,” nearly the entire audience leaped spontaneously out of their seats to deliver a rowdy, thunderous standing ovation, forcing both conductor and pianist to return to the stage again and again. It was the kind of insane, excessive excitement that you generally equate with a rock concert.
But why not? A symphony audience knows when they’ve experienced something special, and they knew it Thursday evening. Conductor, orchestra and soloist delivered the kind of spectacular, memorable performance that one remembers for decades, and everyone knew it, veteran concertgoer and symphony newbie alike.
We suspect that the audience would have loved an encore from Mr. Lugansky, but if so, he was right not to oblige. There was really no way to top the performance he had just delivered.
After such a triumphal close to the concert’s first half, the evening concluded with a much smaller subset of the NSO returning to perform Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40 in G-minor,” K. 550. While this work in the opinion of many is the composer’s finest symphony, its programming here seemed in some ways anti-climactic, positioned as it was following the Prokofiev concerto’s atomic blast.
But perhaps in the mind of the conductor, placing the Mozart here concluded this program’s story arc: the almost innocent youthfulness of Mendelssohn’s overture gives way to the dramatic statement of a Prokofiev’s early adulthood, both of which then slide toward Mozart’s likely premonition of mortality in his 40th as expressed in his next-to-the-last symphony.
Perhaps we’re speculating overly much on this. But whatever the case, Mr. Meister and the NSO once again gave the audience a fine—if a bit too fast-paced—reading of this masterwork to conclude a very satisfying evening of mostly familiar music performed in an extraordinary manner.
Tempo quibbles aside, Cornelius Meister is a multitalented young conductor who seems to amply possess the tools, the enthusiasm and the will to helm a major orchestra sooner rather than later. It will be interesting to see how his career plays out in the years ahead. We wish him the best. And we, at least, would like to see him drop anchor here day for another guest appearance.
A little further on in his career than Cornelius Meister, the 40-something Nikolai Lugansky also impresses mightily as an artist of uncommon power and interpretative skill. Combining modest showmanship with a virtually flawless, subtly expressive technique, he’s clearly one of the finest pianists performing today.
As in the case of Mr. Meister, we’re sure that if Maestro Eschenbach and the NSO wish to invite Mr. Lugansky back once again, tickets could very well prove hard to get.
Speaking of tickets, you have two more opportunities to catch the NSO this weekend along with the orchestra’s dynamic duo of guest artists—tonight and Saturday evening. So if you need a push, here it is.
Meanwhile, if you want to sample Mr. Lugansky’s artistry, check out the remarkable video below, as the pianist informally tests out a Steinway grand prior to a live performance of the challenging “Third Piano Concerto” of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Even though he occasionally stops to perfect a passage in this video, you’ll clearly see and hear a bit of what NSO audiences will be experiencing this weekend.
*Note 1: At least that’s this work’s English language title as I remember it. The program notes eliminate the indefinite article.
**Note 2: The German-English pun here is perhaps unfortunate but not intentional.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars, minus maybe 1/8 of a star for occasional tempo issues)
Tickets and information: Tickets are $29-85 for both evenings, with some specially priced $20 tickets available Friday night as of this writing. This concert repeats this Friday evening and Saturday evening at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. For tickets and information, visit the NSO section of the Kennedy Center website.
Note: Mr. Lugansky will be signing CD’s outside the Concert Hall after the conclusion of the Saturday evening performance.