Higdon, Lang leave Kennedy Center mark

5-movement score and piano concerto are sounds to savor

Music Reviews

October 04, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Two powerhouses swept through the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Thursday night - composer Jennifer Higdon and pianist Lang Lang, the featured attractions on this week's National Symphony Orchestra program. Each left a long-lasting impression.

Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra, written for the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered by that ensemble last year, is a five-movement score that easily stakes a claim as one of the most inventive and substantive additions to American music in years. Even if there are a couple of spots that seem a little long-winded, the array of sound colors never ceases to grab the ear, while the brilliant working-out of ideas never ceases to impress.

The concept of a concerto that turns 100 or so musicians into the soloist was most famously pursued by Bartok, whose masterpiece in this genre remains his greatest hit. Higdon has approached the task as cleverly as Bartok, finding ways to let each section of the ensemble - woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion - show off a wide range of sonic and expressive effects. She also gives principal players plenty of solo activity as well.

Stylistically, the Philadelphia-based Higdon comes down firmly on the side of tonalists, but she also knows her way around a spiky dissonance. Reminders of many a 20th-century composer may float to the surface of the concerto from time to time, but the net effect of her writing is decidedly original. Highlights include the slithering strings and gentle persistence of a piano that set off a lyrical flute solo in the third movement; the subtle, exotic percussion sounds at the start of the fourth; and a hard-driving finale that could not be more American in temperament or punch.

On the podium, Leonard Slatkin demonstrated his familiar appreciation for detail and sonic nuance. A few passages sounded in need of further tightening, but there was considerable bravura in the orchestra's performance. (I'm not sure the musicians enjoyed the experience as much as the audience; there were an awful lot of glum faces onstage when Higdon arrived to take her bows.)

Lang Lang's passionate brand of keyboard virtuosity is well-known in these parts. His account of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 was everything you'd expect from this young firebrand, complete with alternately crazed and dreamy tempos, thunderous and whispery dynamics. The roar from the audience that followed was just what you'd expect, too.

There was a marvelous air of spontaneity in the pianist's approach, a sense that he was discovering and thrilling to the music for the first time. (I bet he would have preferred thrilling to it on a less brittle instrument.) Slatkin's sympathetic support ensured supple interplay between Lang Lang and the National Symphony Orchestra, which did some terrifically expressive playing of its own.

The evening began with three of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, shaped by Slatkin with an easygoing charm and given a sensual warmth by the strings.

NSO

Where: Kennedy Center, 2701 F St., N.W., Washington

When: 8 tonight

Tickets: $20 to $75

Call: 800-444-1324

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