An orchestra's notable show of American pride, solidarity

Review: The National Symphony Orchestra opened its new season at the Kennedy Center with power and finesse.

September 21, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

What was to have been a light-hearted start to the National Symphony Orchestra's 2001-2002 season, its 30th year of residency at the Kennedy Center, turned into a very different occasion Wednesday. It wasn't just about patriotism and reflection, but hope and solidarity as well.

At the center of the program was Bach, whose music represents one of the most profound arguments against evil. While the rest of the program involved many performers, this long, mesmerizing moment of Bach focused on one instrument, one musician who seemed to speak for millions.

The piece was the D minor "Chaconne" for solo violin. Midori, who earlier in the evening delivered a rapt, almost fiercely expressive account of Chausson's "Poeme" with the NSO, carved out this noble music in firm, bold strokes. She revealed the genius behind the structure of the score, and the soul behind the genius.

In the wake of last week's insanity, the "Chaconne" sounded more priceless than ever. By the same token, the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sounded more idealistic than ever; this time around, it was as if we could hear Beethoven struggling to make us believe in his plea for brotherhood.

NSO music director Leonard Slatkin conducted the Beethoven excerpt with the same intensity and emotive force that came through in broadcasts last weekend of the celebrated Last Night of the Proms in London. Slatkin, the first American to conduct that massively popular annual concert, had substituted the "Ode to Joy" and other works for the traditional British favorites in response to the tragedies back home.

Slatkin's faith in Beethoven's message emerged Wednesday in a performance filled with telling touches, some delicate, some explosive. The orchestra's response was firm and determined; the Choral Arts Society of Washington sang powerfully. Of the soloists, soprano Dominique Labelle's crystalline tones and tenor Julian Gavin's vibrant phrasing were particularly valuable.

Denyce Graves sang an overblown, mundane tune called "American Anthem" and two spirituals (unfortunately in un-idiomatic, souped-up arrangements). The mezzo shouldn't have used amplification, but she brought affecting conviction to the music, especially "Give Me Jesus."

Soprano Danielle de Niese, a recent alumna of the Metropolitan Opera's young artist program, contributed two arias by Mozart. "Bella mia fiamma," with its references to death, vengeance and farewell, took on an uncomfortable new context; the sweetness of "L'amero, saro costante" provided a welcome contrast.

The soprano's voice turned strident under pressure at the top, but there was an appealing, silvery quality otherwise and lots of thoughtful phrasing. The NSO's new concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, delivered the solos in "L'amero" with a tender finesse.

Slatkin was a sympathetic partner to both vocalists and, expect for unevenness in the winds during the Mozart items, drew admirable playing from the ensemble.

A performance of Barber's "Adagio for Strings," the closest thing we have in this country to official memorial music, was superbly shaped and deeply poignant. The "Star-Spangled Banner" and a technicolor arrangement of "America the Beautiful" opened and closed the evening, drawing the audience into the cathartic concert.

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