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The NSO’s Penderecki cello surprise – with iPads

Written By | May 1, 2015

WASHINGTON, May 1, 2015 – The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall looked to be nearly sold out Thursday evening as members of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) warmed up for the usual 7 p.m. curtain. And why not? What’s not to love about a program that begins with Johann Strauss II’s fun and fizzy overture to “Die Fledermaus” and wraps up with that greatest of all classical warhorses, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony?

Actually, this kind of programming was nothing short of genius, since this pair of popular symphonic hits bracketed the centerpiece of Thursday evening’s concert: the first-ever NSO performance of contemporary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos and Orchestra.

Ever since I was nine years old—quite a long time ago, alas—I can recall that nearly every Cleveland Orchestra concert I attended that prominently featured new music by either living or recently deceased composers had at least as many empty seats as those that were occupied.

The reason? For decades, regular concertgoers—having been burned from one to many times by the relentless and predictable atonal noise and ugliness such programs uniformly offered—developed an almost Pavlovian response when contemporary or world premiere compositions like these were the main entrée on the symphony menu: they’d simply find something else to do those evenings. Hence, those acres of empty seats.

Krzysztof Penderecki was one of those composers that could drive symphony fans to go see a movie rather than attend a concert featuring his music. Even today, that would likely have been the result here in Washington last night, without, of course, the irresistible draw of Strauss and Beethoven to fill those seats.

But that would have been a shame. For reasons beyond the scope of this review, Mr. Penderecki (b. 1933) experienced a spiritual, philosophical and musical sea change in mid-compositional career, rediscovering his religious and musical—i.e., tonal—heritage.

While Mr. Penderecki’s music can still retain a spiky edginess to it, twenty-first century concert hall veterans should consider putting away their wooden crosses and garlic wreaths and giving this composer’s newer works a try. Which is exactly what Strauss II and Beethoven convinced them to do.

Loosely based on Baroque and Classical concerto traditions, the nominally three-movement Penderecki Concerto Grosso, premiered in Tokyo in 2001, strikes out in its own direction. With its three movements played without pause and branching into multiple subsections, the Concerto comes across more like a tone poem describing and exploring the haunting beauty and often unexpected violence that continue to drive this new century.

What makes the concerto unusual is that it features not one, but three cello soloists, making it trickier to program than a single-soloist concerto. The NSO’s nifty decision here: hire three of their own from the cello section, namely Steven Honigberg, James Lee and David Teie. All did a splendid job performing and interpreting this unusual work.

Even more interesting: They all performed this difficult music via scrolling iPads rather than the usual and sometimes cumbersome sheet music. Although we’re not quite sure how this was accomplishing, computationally, it worked flawlessly. Perhaps it’s the wave of things to come.

Aside from its colorful orchestration and inventive approach to the genre, the fascinating thing about this concerto is the composer’s use of his three soloists. Typically in a baroque-style concerto for two or more soloists, there will be a single, primary soloists with the accompanying instrumentalists more or less playing second fiddle if you’ll forgive the expression.

In this concerto, however, the composer regards the three soloists as distinctive voices, each with something different to say and with a different approach to life. What we end up with, then, are a series of interesting musical and philosophical conversations, both among the soloists themselves and between the soloists and the full orchestra.

The NSO’s three cellists were marvelously interactive in these musical discussions. Even better, the crispness and thoughtfulness of their collective performance served to remind us that a great symphony orchestra is not simply made up of first-chairs and everybody else. We have instead an assemblage of musicians who are actually soloists in their own right but have chosen to make music as an ensemble which, at its best, plays with a single beating heart.

Mr. Penderecki’s music itself is an interesting and clearly contemporary amalgam of recognizable styles blended into an individualistic whole. The music alternates moods sometimes wildly, veering from an aching late Romanticism to brief snatches of nasty and acidic martial music, calling to mind satirical passages from composers like Kurt Weill and Dmitri Shostakovich.

The music gets edgy at times, but never goes of the cliff (in the atonal sense) making it interesting, challenging but also pleasant and intriguing at the same time. It’s an outstanding composition, really, given an outstanding performance by outstanding soloists as well as an outstanding orchestra which, along with their conductor and music director Christoph Eschenbach, somehow managed to do a Vulcan mind-meld with this complicated but rewarding music. Bravo.

Lest we neglect Thursday’s musical bookends—that pair of compositions that got the audience in the door to experience that wonderful Penderecki concerto—let’s take a brief look at Messrs. Strauss and Beethoven as we heard them last night.

The concert opened, of course, with the “Fledermaus” overture. Again, looking back on my Cleveland Orchestra experiences, I recall that sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the orchestra came out with a popular album entitled “Merry Overtures,” of which the overture to “Fledermaus” was one.

The reason for bringing this up is the simple fact that this particular overture is a merry one indeed, a bit of musical fluff made extra-special because it’s shot through with several of those wonderful ditties and waltz tunes that Strauss seemed able to crank out by the dozens whenever the mood suited.

That’s good, too, because the orchestra seemed uncharacteristically haphazard in its performance of the work. The naturally varying and rubato tempos in the work sometimes went their own way in various sections, the strings were sometimes buried by the other instrumental choirs when they should have been on top, and the entire performance seemed to lack a sense of definition throughout.

Because the music is so much fun, a lot of this didn’t seem to matter that much to the audience, but still… hopefully things will be a bit more centered during Saturday evening’s final performance.

Fortunately, the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, which arrived after the Penderecki Concerto and after the intermission, was almost uniformly on more solid ground.

Although Maestro Eschenbach brought the orchestra in a bit before the audience settled down and, in my opinion, rushed those dramatic opening bars a bit much, both conductor and orchestra turned in a fine and well-studied performance of a work that’s heard so often by most concertgoers that it often loses both its visceral excitement and its not occasional charms.

Although the symphony’s signature opening is what most listeners remember about this work, the NSO was particularly effective in the driving, dramatic and inherently exciting finale. That movement is introduced as a new thought, flowing quietly at first from the fading moments of the preceding movement. The NSO strings faded at this point to an almost impossibly perfect pianississimo (ppp) before swelling and then bursting into the joyous declaration that opens the triumphant finale.

The orchestra kept up this movement’s irresistible pulse, a force made even more inventive and interesting by surprising and quirky touches, like the clear application to the bass line as emphasized by an instrument that Beethoven never heard of: Lewis Lipnick’s distinctive contraforte. (Which instrument, BTW, also had some interesting moments in the Penderecki.)

This finale’s emotional rush caught even longtime Fifth Symphony veterans off guard. It was, quite simply, a smashing way to end an evening made memorable by musical pleasures both expected and unexpected.

Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars)

The NSO will repeat this program Saturday evening, May 2, 2015 at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The orchestra’s performance on Friday, May 1, 2015 at 8 p.m. is another in its series of “Beyond the Score” programs, originated and copyrighted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Combining education, music, and semi-staged performances by various actors, these evenings involve dramatic moments providing personal and historical context with musical examples in the program’s first half; and a complete performance of the work under discussion—in this case, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—after the intermission. These programs are suitable for—and highly recommended to—families interested in getting their tweeners and teens to know and appreciate at least a bit of Western classical music and culture, something they’ll never learn in school these days, alas. Younger tykes may not benefit quite so much.

Tickets: $10-85, (and they are scarce for both events).

For tickets and information on both concerts, visit the Kennedy Center’s website, or call 202-467-4600 (local) or 800-444-1324 (toll free).


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