NSO's festive season-opener

September 26, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When it comes to gala season-openers, the National Symphony Orchestra knows how to deliver.

The annual tradition comes complete with a grand ball for Washington's well-heeled and well-positioned, but it lets just plain, non-black-tie folks in on the action at ordinary prices during a concert beforehand.

To get the 2006-2007 season officially rolling, the NSO packed them into the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday night for what might have been a ho-hum all-Tchaikovsky program. It was hardly that.

Sure, music director Leonard Slatkin risked some condescending glares by putting both Marche Slave and 1812 Overture on the same bill -- two of the noisiest, most overplayed pieces Tchaikovsky wrote. But when was the last time you head a major orchestra play either one in a non-pops concert -- indoors?

And besides, those works have in common the old Russian national anthem God Save the Czar, so using them as bookends on Sunday gave the evening a neat little balance.

More important, Slatkin had the orchestra fired up nicely to generate a particularly crackling account of the 1812. The strings produced a bright shine, the brass and percussion plenty of bite.

And it was great to have the U.S. Army Chorus (expertly prepared by Lt. Col. John Clanton) intoning the words of the hymn tunes that open and close the score. Tchaikovsky apparently never thought of doing a vocal version of the work, but whenever I encounter it done that way, I find myself thinking he would have loved it.

More fun came from indoor fireworks at the end (Slatkin assured the audience that the fire marshals had approved). Corny, maybe. Festive, definitely.

I wish Slatkin had put a more interesting spin on the familiar phrases of Marche Slave, maybe something like the dynamic push and pull that Joshua Bell offered every chance he got in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.

The violinist had a field day with the warhorse, pouring on the tone and the individuality. Slatkin provided seamless partnering and drew colorful playing from the ensemble.

Two young artists from the Kirov Opera were on hand to sing arias from Eugene Onegin. Irina Mataeva brought a burnished soprano and intense expression to the Letter Scene, and the light, sweet voice of tenor Daniil Shtoda caught the poignancy of Lensky's aria effectively.

The singers also offered the duet that Tchaikovsky sketched out for an opera based on Romeo and Juliet, using melodies from his famous tone poem about the doomed lovers.

The duet, which Sergei Taneyev completed after Tchaikovsky's death, is an endearing rarity. Mataeva and Shtoda soared through it, with sensitive support from Slatkin and the NSO.

All in all, a cool celebration of Tchaikovsky, Slatkin and an orchestra that sounds geared up for the new season.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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