Szymanowski to Ravel: An eclectic NSO evening

Guest conductor Juraj Valcuha, pianist Jonathan Bliss offer wide-ranging program.

WASHINGTON, December 3, 2012 – With guest conductor Juraj Valčuha in charge this past weekend, the NSO embarked on one of its more eclectic Kennedy Center programs, featuring works by Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, and Szymanowksi. Dashing, congenial, and full of energy on the podium, this up-and-coming 30-something Slovakian conductor proved brash enough to attack the program’s late Romantic and impressionistic outer edges while exhibiting precision and coolness in navigating through one of Mozart’s more enigmatic piano concertos—in this case, the composer’s infrequently encountered Piano Concerto No. 13 in C major, K. 387b, capably performed in these concerts by American pianist Jonathan Biss.

The Mozart Concerto was an interesting choice. It’s not very flashy although it has its moments, most of which occur in the third and final movement. Marked “Allegro,” this movement in rondo form launches with a playful, devil-may-care opening theme, which, after a brief development, is interrupted quite startlingly by a slow, somber, almost funereal contrasting motif. That refreshing, opening theme returns for further development, another interruption and, at last a trot toward the concerto’s concluding bars, which hold one more musical surprise: the finale just fades away—a trick Mozart rarely employs in his compositions.

Jonathan Biss played the concerto adequately, but the presentation was lacking in distinction. Given that this particular concerto is not necessarily Mozart at his compositional best, it nonetheless contains some tricks up its sleeve as previously noted. Yet Mr. Biss’ approach was so understated, his passagework so offhanded that he seemed either to be somewhat indifferent to the material or still not quite sure how to present it.

In any event, the NSO accompanied him cleanly and well, and many in the audience, including this reviewer, no doubt appreciated the opportunity to hear one Mozart concerto that continues to be a relative rarity in the concert hall today.

Pianist Jonathan Biss.

Pianist Jonathan Biss. (Credit: Jillian Edelstein)

The remaining purely instrumental portion of the concert was considerably more successful, contrasting two familiar impressionistic works with a dramatic, headlong, and remarkably unfamiliar “Concert Overture in E major” that literally channeled the distinctive musical presence of Richard Strauss. Except that it was written by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937).

Szymanowski, at least in this country, seems to have fallen into that strange 20th century subgenre of really swell composers who were suddenly exiled en masse into a parallel dimension resembling the Phantom Zone in the Superman/DC Comics universe.

Genuinely significant composers Korngold, Zemlinsky, and even Mahler—most of them tending toward the use of extended tonality rather than more fashionable serialism—simply ceased to be much noticed or remembered after the 1930s and 1940s had passed. With the notable exception of Mahler, whose revival was, in no small way, passionately championed by the late Leonard Bernstein, most of the remainder still largely remain in search of a reliable, regular audience in the U.S.

Szymanowski can be numbered among them. Actually born in a Polish-dominated area of what’s known today as modern Ukraine, he’s still highly regarded in Poland and Eastern Europe but remains a shadowy figure in most American concert halls. In some ways, this might be due to those peculiar, serial compositional enthusiasms that make him almost impossible to label.

Like Scriabin, that inscrutable Russian, his earliest compositions embraced the Polish Romantic tradition of Chopin. He then embraced the late-Romantic gigantism and chromaticism of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, but eventually replaced this style with a blend of impressionism and extended tonality that seems to blend the spirit of Debussy with the ecstatic spiritual madness and magical chords of Scriabin, plus a dash of Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin just to keep things interesting. This period produced what was perhaps his most important work, the decadent, sensuous opera, King Roger. Ultimately, however, he completed his strange journey by embracing his Polish forbears once again.

Marked Opus 12, Szymanowski’s overture, written in his 23rd year, finds him deep in his German late-Romantic persona. It’s a huge, boisterous, exciting composition, a full-blown masterwork in many ways—a fact made all the more astonishing as the overture was Szymanowski’s first orchestral composition. That said, it has all the determination, confidence, and imagination of a mature composer perhaps twice his age at the time. It could easily be mistaken for an unknown work by Richard Strauss.

Anecdote: This reviewer still remembers the first piece he ever heard at a live symphony orchestra concert at the age of 9. It was Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Don Juan, which, as nearly every regular concertgoer knows, blasts off abruptly with a massive, full orchestra flourish dominated by the strings and brass. Performed to brilliant perfection at that concert by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of the legendary George Szell—a noted Strauss interpreter—that thrilling opening eruption nearly induced levitation, or at least an altered state in that 9 year old, setting him on a permanent musical path that had little to do with Elvis or the Beatles.

How surprising, then, when the Szymanowski overture—never heard by this writer and probably never heard by most of the audience—thundered its way into the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Thursday evening in almost exactly the same manner, with a signature orchestral flourish dominated by strings and brass, sounding the same as Don Juan only entirely different.

Conductor Juraj Valcuha.

After just a touch of indecision in the brass section in the early going, Maestro Valčuha and the NSO really dug into this overture and gave it one heck of a thrilling reading. The overture is a genuinely brash opening career statement by Szymanowski, filled as it is with powerful, relentless Romantic extroversion. It’s loaded with every-morphing dissonances and surprising key changes and modulations, splashed all over with sparkling, unusual orchestral colors, all of which is driven home by a thumping, martial percussion section.

The overture is Szymanowski’s homage to Strauss, to be sure. But it also gives a heavy hat tip to Scriabin and a slightly less obvious one to Mahler. And yet it’s all entirely Szymanowski. The NSO sounded simply great throughout this intense 16-minute dazzler—a composition the orchestra has never tackled before. Here’s hoping area audiences won’t have to wait another half-century or more before they get to hear it again.

The concert’s impressionist-driven second half was just as delightful, and was, in a way, a great follow-on to the early Szymanowski who, after all, headed in this direction himself eventually. Both Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea) have been concert hall staples for years. The former is filled with simple, catchy, memorable themes that snap and crackle with the energy and unique tonal colors that Ravel always had a knack for. The latter, more introspective and moody, is Debussy at his original and even dramatic best, particularly in the third and final movement, which ends with the sound of gigantic Atlantic waves splashing and crashing thunderously on the rocky shore pushed ever onward by the assertive brass and percussion sections.

Maestro Valčuha and the NSO were again at the top of their game in both works, offering the Ravel with a light, playful touch, which contrasted well with the sweep and majesty of La Mer. In short, it was a great night for music, a fine performance by the NSO, and an opportunity to catch a glimpse of a dashing yet polished young conductor who looks to have a long and interesting career ahead of him.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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