WASHINGTON, Oct. 2, 2015 – It’s October and Washington’s classical music scene is now running at full tilt, as evidenced by the National Symphony Orchestra’s regular season debut Thursday evening.
Led by guest conductor Donald Runnicles and featuring as guest artist rising Russian soprano Olga Peretryatko, this weekend’s series concert got things off to a pleasant and at times genuinely moving and exciting start with works by Mozart, Richard Strauss and Sir Edward Elgar.
The evening began somewhat unpromisingly with Mr. Runnicles directing the NSO in an Acela Express version of Mozart’s Overture to “The Magic Flute,” K.620 (1791). This familiar and popular work frames some of the opera’s light and lively musical spirit with pompous brass chords that introduce this work’s more faux-dramatic moments.
The brass chords were just fine. But Mr. Runnicles, for whatever reason, took the majority of the overture at a rapid, helter-skelter pace that might have been more appropriate as the musical backdrop for a Warner Brothers cartoon chase scene.
Yes, this overture is certainly meant to be briskly paced. But it would have been nice if that pace had been a bit less frantic, allowing us to appreciate the intricacies of Mozart’s orchestral textures. One suspects that orchestra members would also have appreciated a slightly more moderate tempo, given various sections’ occasional lag time as the overture raced for the finish line.
Fortunately, the remainder of the evening was considerably more successful, particularly the next item on the menu, Richard Strauss’ revered “Four Last Songs” (1948; premiered posthumously in 1950). Composed close to the end of this long-lived composer’s fascinating and eventful life (1864-1949), it sets to music the poetry of Joseph von Eichendorff and Hermann Hesse. These highly but quietly emotional songs—particularly the last two in the sequence—are Strauss’ touching farewell to the overly complicated world he sensed he was about to depart.
The music itself is Straussian late-Romantic lushness at its finest, hearkening back to the composer’s tone-poem period. Indeed, a brief quote or two from his epic “Death and Transfiguration” appears in this set. The score also uncannily reflects the underlying emotions clearly present in the poetic text in a way few composers of vocal music have achieved before or since.
Thursday evening’s performance was extraordinarily, almost unexpectedly, affecting. In contrast to the preceding Mozart, Mr. Runnicles and the NSO were in perfect synch here. Tempos were modest and appropriate, particularly considering the sad yet hopeful sung texts.
Better still, the young soloist, soprano Peretyatko, thoroughly grasped the deeper meaning of these texts in her sensitive and highly moving articulation of Strauss’ multi-level vocal score, particularly in his lovely third song, “Beim Schlafengehen” (“Going to Sleep”), the best-known of the four.
The NSO itself performed close to Straussian perfection here, nicely balancing the composer’s surging signature brass passages with each song’s quieter, more contemplative moments. Particularly notable in this performance were the brief solo violin essays in the third song as interpreted by the orchestra’s fine concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, whose understated manner complemented Ms. Peretyatko perfectly.
The program’s second half was devoted to the very British music of English composer Sir Edward Elgar—perhaps unsurprising, as Maestro Runnicles is a native of Scotland.
First up was Elgar’s well-known Serenade for String Orchestra in E-minor, Op. 20 (1892), an early work that was always among the composer’s favorites. A fairly short musical essay, its focal point—framed by a pair of short, sprightly, almost ephemeral outer movements—is its central, romantic “Larghetto” essay, a classic late-Romantic Romanza notable for its sinuous and seductive extended melodic lines. The NSO strings performed smoothly and superbly.
That paradigm extended to the evening’s grand finale, Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” Op. 36 (1899). Probably the composer’s most popular full-length work in this country, “Enigma” brought the rest of the orchestra, along with the Concert Hall’s Rubenstein Family Organ, back into the auditorium for a rousing conclusion to the evening.
Music fans already know the story behind this unusual piece. Essentially another example of classical music’s always popular “theme and variations” compositions, Elgar’s variations have a famous twist. The work’s primary mystery, or “enigma,” lies in the fact that we never actually hear the “theme”—only the variations. Elgar hinted that the variations themselves contained the key to discovering that mystery theme. But even in 2015, neither composers, musicologists nor classical music fans in general have ever succeeded in definitively uncovering the theme.
No matter. This is one of the great, rousing pieces in the classical repertoire, and under Mr. Runnicles, the NSO gave it a go, turning in an energetic and exciting performance—bombastic in the more melodramatic variations, coquettish and light in the more satirical ones.
The famous, stately “Nimrod” variation—whose majestic, very-English hymn-tune is immediately recognizable even to those not familiar with the entire composition—was perfectly turned out. And the entire work’s eclectic but martial finale was brilliantly executed, including its thrilling conclusion as underscored, for the very first time, by the Concert Hall’s still nearly-new Rubenstein Family Organ.
The buzz around town is that Mr. Runnicles (as well as some of this season’s upcoming guest conductors) may be one of the competitors to succeed the NSO’s current music director, Christoph Eschenbach, who will be stepping down from his Kennedy Center post in 2017.
Aside from the uncomfortably fast Mozart Thursday evening, the NSO performed well under Mr. Runnicles’ direction. But, since we’re not entirely sure what qualities the orchestra’s board and orchestra members will be looking for in Mr. Eschenbach’s eventual successor, we’re not really in a position to handicap the selection process.
However, we do have a general suggestion. Perhaps it’s time for some orchestra somewhere to break with the current tradition of hiring (and paying a great deal of money for) yet another Very Famous Conductor who also leads three to five other orchestras and is thus absent from each for weeks at a time.
Instead, why not give a younger but still highly-respected, U.S.-raised conductor a shot at the job—one who’ll stake his or her future reputation primarily on the quality of the sound and the innovative repertoire that he or she can develop with the excellent but long-underrated orchestra that performs in our nation’s capital.
It’s a thought.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)
Upcoming NSO Concerts:
Oct. 8-10: Guest conductor Ludovic Morlot leads the NSO in a program of works by Rodrigo, Berlioz, Ravel and Dukas. Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin is guest soloist.
Oct. 14 only: NSO’s resident organist William Neil presents “Fireworks!” with the NSO brass and percussion, featuring a wide range of organ, brass and percussion works of composers ranging from Gabrielli to Bach to Franck to Widor.
Oct. 29-31: Maestro Eschenbach returns to the podium to conduct works by Wagner and Dvořáck, as well as soloist Lang Lang performing Greig’s Piano Concerto in A-minor.
Nov. 5-7: Maestro Eschenbach conducts the NSO in Mahler’s gigantic Symphony No. 3, with mezzo-soprano soloist Anne Sofie von Otter.