Works suit sad audience

Review: NSO's program reflects public's feelings.

September 24, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Although the National Symphony Orchestra, like many ensembles across the country, adjusted its traditional light and breezy season-opening concert last week in the wake of Sept. 11, no changes had to be made to its first regular subscription program. It already had much to offer a public saddened and sickened, anxious and proud.

There were two big items on the bill -- Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), which reflects a foreign visitor's positive experiences in this country; and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, which sing of nations raging and people muttering empty things, of fearing no evil, of goodness and mercy, and of how pleasant it is for people to dwell together as brothers. You couldn't get much more fitting than that.

This was also the program that generated some controversy due to the inclusion of a work that attempts to suggest what Beethoven might have done had he ever turned a smattering of sketches into the overture for an opera on Shakespeare's Macbeth. Following initial publicity that put a little more emphasis on the notion of a world premiere by Beethoven than on a mere supposition, hostile reactions were registered even before a note was sounded.

Judging by Friday's performance at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, the overture generated much ado about nothing -- or at least very little.

The repertoire, as NSO music director Leonard Slatkin noted in remarks to the audience, contains quite a few works that have been finished by someone besides the original composer. In the case of Macbeth, however, there are just a handful of notes to work with, a mere wisp of an idea.

Dutch composer and computer programmer Albert Willem Holsbergen expanded on those notes last year by borrowing material from Beethoven's so-called Ghost Trio that a few people think was first considered for use in a Macbeth opera. As musical scholarship goes, it's a case of conjecturing on pretty thin ice.

Still, no harm was done. It was an honest, harmless exercise in musical speculation.

The eight-minute overture does have its moments, chief among them a sense of atmosphere; the work sounds as if it could, indeed, precede Macbeth, conveying a bit of spookiness, dark drama and military action. Measure for measure, though, it tells us more about Holsbergen than Beethoven. Too many patches of melodic and harmonic inertia made plain that this is the not genuine article.

Slatkin and the orchestra gave it a determined performance, preceded by a very different kind of musical hindsight, Respighi's full-throttle arrangement of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. It's not Bach, but it's terrific, and it was very powerfully performed.

Chichester Psalms, featuring sure-voiced boy soprano Francois Suhr and the excellent Choral Arts Society of Washington, likewise drove home its message. Slatkin effectively drew out the score's lyric beauty and rhythmic vitality.

The conductor's approach to Dvorak's Ninth was full of expressive detail. The famous Largo was molded with particular sensitivity; the rest had great drive and drama. Unfortunately, assorted mishaps in the woodwinds and brass took a serious toll, leaving the strings, with their admirable warmth and accuracy, to carry an extra burden.

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