NSO celebrates Russia with Rostropovich visit

Program offers Prokofiev selections

Music Reviews

March 01, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

With all the Russian music filling Baltimore these days, a drive to Washington - through a slippery snowfall, no less - to hear more of it might strike some folks as a little odd. But there were three compelling reasons to make that trek Thursday night: Sergei Prokofiev, Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra.

As Rostropovich walked onto the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, members of the brass section let loose a little fanfare to salute the NSO's former music director, making his first appearance with the ensemble since 1998. It's not the same NSO that he left in 1994 after 17 years (successor Leonard Slatkin has made more than two dozen new hires since then), but it responded with the same intensity that characterized the best nights of his tenure.

I got to hear almost all of Rostropovich's programs in his first four years and remember well the heart and soul in his conducting, the feeling that music was being lived, not merely performed. With the orchestra on a higher technical plane than ever this season, so cohesive and flexible, he couldn't help but get extra mileage from this reunion.

Rostropovich enjoyed fruitful friendships with two 20th-century giants of Russian composers, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, who were both inspired by his mastery of the cello. Prokofiev went so far as to rewrite his Cello Concerto for Rostropovich, transforming the original material into one of his most powerful works - the Sinfonia concertante. It's at the center of this week's all-Prokofiev program in honor of the 50th anniversary of the composer's death. His two most popular symphonies provide the bookends.

From the opening movement of the Classical Symphony, there was no mistaking Rostropovich's stamp. Instead of following Prokofiev's tempo indication, Allegro con brio, he offered neither allegro nor brio. It was like listening in slow motion, yet the music never seemed to drag. The conductor had the musicians articulating with exceptional clarity, punching out each dynamic contrast along the way.

The deliberate pacing continued through the next two movements, in each case giving the familiar notes a fresh spin and bringing into sharp relief minute details of the scintillant orchestration. Things did pick up for the finale, but there still was a sense of reserve, an extra dose of nostalgia in the Haydn-esque piece. This isn't the way I would always want to hear the Classical Symphony, but I found it thoroughly persuasive.

Xavier Phillips, a prize winner at the 1990 Rostropovich Competition in Paris, played the demanding solo in the Sinfonia concertante with a fervor and technical command reminiscent of Rostropovich himself. The French cellist's eloquence was complemented by smoothly dovetailed conducting and brilliant work from the orchestra, especially the hot brass.

Prokofiev's Fifth, with its episodes of glowing lyricism and high drama, was likewise given a riveting performance, one that built steadily in tension and power. Rostropovich drew a dark, beautiful sound from the NSO, which seemed to connect deeply with every note.

The concert will be repeated at 8 tonight at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W., Washington. Seating is limited. Call 800-444-1324.

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