NHK didn't need its stars

Music: The orchestra was in fine form

its featured artist less so.

May 04, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The best thing about the NHK Symphony Orchestra's concert in the WPAS series Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center was the NHK itself.

That's saying a lot about a program that included the local premiere of a new work by composer-of-the-moment Sofia Gubaidulina, and the stellar presences of conductor Charles Dutoit and violinist Sarah Chang.

The NHK, Japan's oldest professional orchestra, sounds like a superb Austro-Germanic ensemble. The string playing is marked by beautiful tone, rich and firm in the lower strings, ringing (though not over-bright) and full of bloom in the violins. The wind playing was warm and full of character and the brass choirs, while polished and civilized, supplied plenty of bite and excitement when called for.

As one expects of an orchestra from a culture in which cooperation is highly esteemed, the ensemble was phenomenally polished. I can't recall ever hearing a more dazzling performance of the scherzo of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. Not even the Leningrad Philharmonic in its glory days ever achieved the kind of whiplash clarity heard from Dutoit and the NHK in the scherzo's ever-accelerating, faster-than-light coda.

The rest of the concert was disappointing. Gubaidulina's "In the shadow of the tree" for koto, bass koto and zheng (zither-like instruments that are either plucked or stroked) and orchestra failed in the way such attempts at East-West musical dialogue usually do. While the Eastern instruments are tuned differently than (and live outside the pitch intervals that govern) their Western counterparts, these differences become subsumed within the orchestral context. Although some of the Russian composer's orchestral effects were beautiful, sometimes even suggesting an almost Mussorgskyan grandeur, her 30-minute piece just sounded too long.

Sarah Chang has been an international celebrity for almost a decade, but the 19-year-old Philadelphia-born, Juilliard-trained violinist's performance of the Sibelius Concerto sounded callow. She is a good player but -- on this occasion, at least -- not a good musician. She ignored many of the composer's explicit instructions, concluding the final phrase of the first movement's cadenza, for example, with a screaming fortissimo instead of the called-for pianissimo.

She ignored common sense. While it is fine, for example, to adopt a tempo that downplays the cautionary "Allegro, ma non tanto ("fast, but not too fast") marking for the finale, it is a mistake to forget to make the quarter notes at the beginning of the movement emphatic enough. Without establishing that stamping rhythm, the movement cannot become the "danse macabre" for which the composer asked.

Chang compounded this mistake when she proceeded to rush ahead of the accompanying double basses. Sibelius meant for the soloist to drive to the concerto's conclusion with unremitting energy -- but not at the expense of ignoring her partners on the podium and in the orchestra.

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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