NSO has program filled with riches

New music blends in with the old


October 26, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Ezra Pound thought that "music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance." The National Symphony Orchestra's current program revels in works that seem determined to prove his theory.

This colorful mix of material, including two world premieres, is the sort that NSO music director Leonard Slatkin excels at concocting - and conducting.

On Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the theme was neatly established by the oldest item on the bill, Carl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance, which received a pleasant account that was just a little short on finesse and sparkle. There were sensitive solos from assistant principal cellist Glenn Garlick.

The rest of the full-scale, full-throttle scores offered few let's-sit-this-one-out moments. It was a mostly high-kicking night.

Cindy McTee's Symphony No 1: Ballet for Orchestra, a product of the invaluable Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works, sets out "to enlighten and to entertain, to communicate wholeness, and to celebrate life," says the Texas-based composer. This suggests something terribly new age-y, but the symphony actually comes across with a gritty energy and abundant cleverness.

There is much to engage the ear - from the growling, down-in-the-depths woodwind solos of the first movement and dark lyricism of the second, to an affectionate take-off on Maurice Ravel's La Valse in the third and groans of exotic percussion instruments punctuating the jazzy fourth. Structural clarity and sophisticated orchestration add to the assets. McTee's style falls into that neo-tonal category so prevalent today, but avoids turning faceless.

Slatkin, firmly attuned to the beat and the spirit of the score, elicited a taut, dynamic performance from the ensemble.

New Yorker Steven Burke was commissioned through the same Hechinger fund for the NSO's unusual series of new "encores" - short pieces meant to add a kind of final thought on a specific program. Slatkin decided to place the premiere of Burke's Dance Craze at the midway point, rather than at the very end after Ravel's La Valse, which really is the last word on orchestral dance.

Burke's encore is suitably noisy, prismatic and hard-driven, if not quite memorable.

It was interesting to hear how fresh Colin McPhee's 1936 Tabuh-Tabihan still sounds. The Canadian composer, a 1921 graduate of the Peabody Institute, incorporated the idioms of the Balinese gamelan ensemble and its distinctive, percussion-driven music. Slatkin had this richly exotic, almost pre-minimalist score churning and pulsating seductively.

Aaron Copland's Dance Symphony from 1930 hasn't lost its punch, either. This is pre-lyrical-Americana Copland, edgy in rhythm and harmony. Although more biting attacks and a greater sense of spontaneity would have been welcome from the ensemble, the score's character came through vividly.

Slatkin had La Valse swirling almost giddily. I wish he had allowed more breathing room in places, but the sheer drive of the performance, not to mention some of the most bravura playing I've heard by the NSO, made a striking impression.


What: National Symphony Orchestra

Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W., Washington

When: 8 tonight

Tickets: $19 to $69

Call: 202-467-4600

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