Tchaikovsky fest gets flavorful start

MusicReview

December 05, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

You've no doubt come across the kind of dessert that restaurants like to dub, with good reason, "Death by Chocolate" -layer upon layer of impossibly rich, incalculably caloric confectionery. I never can resist it. On Wednesday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the National Symphony Orchestra served its capacity audience a program that could have been called "Death by Tchaikovsky." I couldn't resist that, either.

This was the big-gun opening of the Kennedy Center's month-long focus on Tchaikovsky, a festival that will provide a substantial sampling of the composer's output in multiple genres. It would be cool if most of the music scheduled were relatively unfamiliar; the Kirov Opera's production of Mazeppa in a couple of weeks is nearly the only item not from Tchaikovsky's hit parade. But, as Wednesday's concert demonstrated, there's still a lot of flavor in the old chestnuts, especially when you've got very hot talents to roast them.

Packed into this program were the composer's three most popular works for solo instrument and orchestra. Ordinarily, the Violin Concerto or Piano Concerto No. 1 is more than enough for one evening. Here, we got not only those two crowd-pleasers, but the closest thing to a cello concerto that Tchaikovsky wrote, the Rococo Variations. As for the NSO's lineup of soloists to perform them - pianist Yefim Bronfman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Gil Shaham - the phrase "ne plus ultra" comes to mind. (Shaham is the only soloist on the NSO's program today and tomorrow.)

Each player approached the respective target with freshness of vision, not to mention boldness of attack. They made the familiar scores crackle, shimmer and snap. They had considerable support. Conductor Leonard Slatkin was a seamless partner for each; the orchestra sounded energized, sensitive and, with few exceptions, finely polished.

I would have preferred a different ordering to the program, one that saved the biggest sonic punch - the piano concerto - for the end. Instead, after Slatkin led the NSO in a pleasant appetizer, the Waltz from Eugene Onegin, the three soloists appeared alphabetically. But although Bronfman's riotous performance seemed like a tough act to follow after intermission, Ma and Shaham easily disproved that notion when they got their turns in the spotlight.

Bronfman seems to get more virtuosic every time I hear him. His tone and technique took on downright Horowitz-like properties as he tore into the concerto's bravura elements; sparks were flying high in the octave passages of the outer movements. There was abundant tenderness, too, for the middle movement, with a lyrical touch that never turned saccharine.

The graceful elegance of the Rococo Variations speaks for itself, but the wit in the score needs a little push. Ma revealed that humor in brilliant flourishes - the musical equivalents of an actor's asides - that induced smiles onstage and in the house. He had enormous fun with this music, whether reveling in ethereal high notes or sculpting song-like phrases or simply burning up the fingerboard with dazzling filigree.

Shaham lavished attention on all elements in the Violin Concerto to create a riveting, three-act music-drama. From the sweet to the fleet, his playing exuded confidence and color. During the Canzonetta, he filed his tone down to an exquisite thread that communicated with affecting melancholy. For bolder passages, he took a gutsy, no-prisoners approach, slicing deeply into the music, sometimes at the cost of beauty, but always with compelling results.

Concert

What: Tchaikovsky Festival

Who: National Symphony Orchestra

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

When: 1:30 p.m. today, 8 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $20 to $75

Call: 800-444-1324

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