|Andrew Lindemann Malone's Internet Playpen|
National Symphony Orchestra, 10/4/03
Saturday night saw the last performance for a while of two new sensations for the National Symphony Orchestra: the Washington premiere of Jennifer Higdon's much-lauded Concerto for orchestra and the indoors debut with the NSO of the hot young ivory-pounder Lang Lang. (He had previously joined the NSO in mosquito-ridden Wolf Trap, which doesn't really count.)
After three lively Dvorák Slavonic Dances, music director and conductor Leonard Slatkin put down the baton and took up the mic to introduce the Higdon. He said exactly nothing that was not in the program notes, so apparently Slatkin was trying to accommodate the vast portion of the audience that was illiterate. Thanks, Lenny!
In any case, Higdon spoke pretty well for herself. Her voice immediately recalls Richard Danielpour, with diatonic chords in non-diatonic contexts, driving rhythms, and questing spirit. But the Concerto for orchestra held one's interest much better than Danielpour's tepid neoromanticism.
Higdon's motifs informed both the music and the audience; the concerto, in five movements, was composed from the middle out, and the arch form is apparent without being overbearing. She draws startling tone colors she draws from the orchestra as well; this is one extravagantly scored modern work that makes you happy no instrument was spared. But most importantly, even though her harmonies don't sour in the ear, she's not afraid to take other risks; for example, her first two movements are very, very fast, and the effect goes from exciting almost to enervating, but she runs it just hard enough to make the magical stillness of the third movement all the more breathtaking. This Concerto for orchestra is a work that will repay repeated hearings, which one hopes will come soon.
Lang Lang took the stage after intermission to play the Rach 3, aka Rachmaninov's third piano concerto. Lang Lang (no one has told him yet not to use both names) apparently plans to ride to stardom on the backs of warhorses, having recorded the Tchaikovsky First already. But the Rach 3 is not a work that can be simply stormed through; it requires not only astonishing physical capacity and technique but also penetrating musicianship, to make all of Rachmaninov's lyrical episodes into one integrated whole.
Well, Lang Lang never tired and never missed a note, but he never seemed to be thinking beyond the next couple measures, either; everything was rephrased on the spur of the moment, even if the new phrasing had nothing at all to do with what went before, and he appeared to play the concerto in a continuous swoon. Unsurprisingly, he played the longer and less subtle of the two cadenzas Rachmaninov composed for the concerto, and hammered the everliving crap out of it too. It was an exciting performance, to be sure, but not a particularly satisfying one; Lang Lang may have deployed the pyrotechnics this weekend, but Higdon, on the basis of this concert, stands a better chance of permanently altering the classical landscape.
Can you tell the exact word when I gave up on writing something that could be converted into publishable form and thus used in a portfolio? Have a guess!
I think the Dvorák Slavonic Dances are lame in orchestral garb. Both Books I and II originally existed in two-piano form, and I first became acquainted with them in a high-spirited recording by Katia and Marielle Labèque. The soeurs hit the rhythms hard and are equally comfy in seductive langourousness, meditative quietude, and fiery storms. By contrast, no orchestral rendering of the dances I've ever heard can match their spontaneity, their drive, their joy. I think the problem is that with the two-piano version, you can almost imagine people actually dancing to these Dances, in a dusty if well-equipped room somewhere, whereas if you got an orchestra together to play dance music they'd be playing Strauss, not Dvorák. Dvorák's transcriptions also indulge in witty switching of melodic elements between orchestral sections that nevertheless take away from the dance effect.
I may be the only person in the Concert Hall on Saturday who didn't think Lang Lang just played the hell out of the Rach 3, but I know the Rach 3 well enough that I'm confident in my opinion. You have to take the concerto as a whole, not as a series of rapturous moments; it doesn't have enough structure, despite the numerous thematic relationships, to hang together otherwise. It's not the Brahms 1, for example. Of course, I'm weird because almost everything I love from Rachmaninov is not particularly popular, with the exception of the Second Symphony and the Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini; the Rach 3 has never had much of a hold on me. I love a great performance of it, and there have been many, but this was just okay.
While I abstained from the standing O for Lang2, I was one of the few people to stand for the Higdon. I have listened to a lot of modern music, and this was one of the few pieces I wanted to hear again right after I heard it. Good job, Jennifer.
Finally, I totally have a crush on Nurit Bar-Josef, the NSO concermaster. She's obviously extremely talented, and she's also a mere 28 years old, which means she's more like phenomenally talented to be helming a second-tier orchestra at that age. Also she's kinda cute, which I could see quite well from my eighth-row seat (endless thanks to my co-worker Sarah who got me this ticket). Maybe not super-cute, but cute enough, man.
Of course, I didn't buy a subscription to the NSO this year, which no doubt does not speak well of my devotion to Nurit, and also I don't know how to pronounce her first name, and I'm pretty sure she hangs out with a lot of phenomenally talented and cute men herself. But these fancies are harmless enough (I'll continue to maintain that until one of these women can actually get a restraining order served on me).
All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.