Pianist Emanuel Ax, Chopin concerto highlight NSO concert

Dvorak 5th Symphony, Stephen Albert's Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2013 – Thursday’s National Symphony Orchestra concert was certainly a masterpiece of seductive programming. Headlined by popular piano soloist Emanuel Ax performing the popular Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 in F-minor, this weekend’s program was bound to be attractive to the ticket-buying public even though it was bookended by one fairly unknown contemporary American symphony by the late Stephen Albert and one fairly unknown symphony by Antonin Dvořak. But the unexpected bonus for those lucky ticket-holders: an evening of astonishing and extraordinarily deep yet pleasant musical diversity.

Thursday’s concert opened with “Rivering Waters,” an excerpt of American composer Stephen Albert’s “RiverRun,” a full symphony based loosely on James Joyce’s enigmatic novel, Finnegans Wake. NSO aficionados will recognize this work’s Washington and NSO origins. The symphony was initially commissioned in the mid-1980s by the NSO via John and June Hechinger while they were under the baton of the late Mstislav Rostropovich. It received its world premiere here in 1985, won a Pulitzer prize that year as well, and was eventually recorded by the NSO—an impressive trifecta.

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Pianist Emanuel Ax. (Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

“Rivering Waters,” an abbreviated version of the symphony consisting only of movements one and four, was created for Rostropovich and the NSO and performed by them here in 1990 before the ensemble incorporated it as a selection for their subsequent tour to Japan and the U.S.S.R.

This was our first opportunity to hear any portion of this work, and we must say, it’s an impressive edifice, which makes the composer’s death in a 1992 auto accident at the age of 51 a genuine tragedy. Albert was, in fact, an early and bold compositional pioneer among younger composers of the era who had finally decided to break the stifling grip of academic atonality that had shackled much of the classical music world throughout most decades of the 20th century—a grip that had, among other things, soured generations of concertgoers on pretty much any contemporary composition on an orchestra’s program.

The trend back to tonality has now been firmly established. But back in the 1980s, it was still largely regarded as heresy, and Albert’s reputation continues to lag even today. Listening to this symphony—or at least two of its movements—on Thursday helps one to understand at once both why the work may have drawn its share of establishment sneers, but also why it should be heard more often today.

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“Rivering Waters” is clearly contemporary in feel and idiom. It’s not serial music. But neither is it afraid to engage in dissonance and tone clusters. It feels American, acts as Irish as a Joycean deep-thinker, and reminds one at times of Sibelius with its thick yet majestic sub-Arctic textures. As with most of the contemporary move back to tonality—sometimes called neo-Romanticism, although that was really the bailiwick of mid-20th century American composers like Samuel Barber—younger practitioners of this compositional philosophy aren’t given much to providing us with melodies or tunes. It’s hard to fathom why. Perhaps this art had been lost in the Long March of the 12-tone scale. Or perhaps, influenced by symphonic movie music, these younger composers like Albert were more interested in operatic-style musical motifs rather than tunes.

In any event, it’s occasionally startling and sometimes lush motifs of this nature that distinguish the two movements of “Rivering Waters.” And this actually meshes perfectly with the literary motif that inspired the entire symphony to begin with: the nearly impenetrable thicket of associative prose known as Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s earlier stream-of-conscious novel, Ulysses, had paved the way for his final giant canvas, tracing the mock-epic journey—Bloomsday—of a single, unexceptional character during the course of one day in Dublin.

Scholars have spent entire careers trying to decipher Finnegans. We ourselves have often imagined it to be at least a massive prank played by Joyce on generations of literary scholars to come. But its striking opening sentence, beginning “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay…” hints that, in some way only known to Joyce, the novelist is employing the River Liffey as a poor Irishman’s Moldau, à la Smetana, using the meanderings of the narrow river to chart an epic tale from its origin in the distant hills to its sudden eruption into an estuary as it becomes one with the Irish sea.

Certainly rain, mists, and atmosphere dominate the symphony’s chaotic and insistent first movement, just as the broad yet nearly anti-climactic river’s end in the sea marks its close. The two movements form a free-associative tone-poem, and the composer probably does as good if not a better job than any English professor in uncovering the subterranean meanings inherent in this near-impossible novel.

Such music is a challenge to conduct and to perform. But for the most part, under the baton of Hugh Wolff, a still popular former member of the NSO family, the orchestra gave an inspired reading of the score, marred occasionally by imprecise entrances. This is a rich, complex work and really deserves to be heard more often in the concert hall. And it’s a tribute to both orchestra and conductor, that area audiences have an opportunity to experience it this weekend.

Dvořak’s Fifth Symphony in F-major, Op. 76, like the Albert is, surprisingly, rarely heard on concert programs. It’s really the composer’s first “mature” symphony in the sense that he’d finally achieved the impressive level of genius that allowed him to turn Czech folk motifs into surprisingly rich, complicated compositions of great depth and power.

For this reason, it has a breathtaking freshness to it that provides endless delight. And its innovative modulations, structures, and juxtapositions occasionally surprise as they seem, in some ways, to anticipate the very different compositional style of Gustav Mahler, particularly in the startlingly violent, minor key launch of the finale which feels, for a moment at least, like the equally startling opening of the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

The Dvořak symphony, however, is also loaded with joy and good cheer, bursting forth from time to time in the brass section as if to emphasize the point. Maestro Wolff and the NSO gave a spirited, passionate reading to this score, and, judging from the enthusiastic audience reaction, they might very well have created a new generation of Symphony No. 5 enthusiasts Thursday night. Entrances were tight, the right sense of playfulness was evident, and everyone in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall felt just plain good about life at the final downbeat.

Occupying the center of this old but new program was the Chopin Piano Concert No. 2, which was really No. 1, but…well, most Chopin fans know the whole story, including the failed teenage romance that inspired it, along with the fact that its structure is still regarded as a little outdated and its orchestration a little thin.

That said, though, it’s Chopin, and one of very few Chopin compositions that uses any kind of orchestra at all. So it’s been a concert hall standout since its Warsaw premiere all the way back in 1830, and it always draws a crowd. And this time, even more of a crowd, since the piano soloist happens to be a Polish-born émigré, who ended up first in Winnipeg, Canada, and thence in the U.S. where he long ago became a citizen. And a very popular artist to boot.

His affinity with Chopin’s concerto is clear, yet his performance was initially startling. Chopin’s concertos are mostly played crisply and precisely by today’s younger pianists whose sheer skill and technique are at times almost frightening. This technique can be negatively deployed in Chopin, however. The Polish pianist and compositional genius was and still is regarded as something of a one-off.

The more you listen to his primarily solo piano compositions, the more you realize how genuinely radical and brilliant he was. He tosses what he knows and loves into the blender and comes up with works that continually amaze. Folk motifs become complex works of genius in his mazurkas. Waltzes become either whirling dervishes or funeral marches in ¾ time. Harmonies will shift and chance in ways that would baffle even innovators like Wagner. And above all, there is always Chopin’s misunderstood rubato, or rhythmic displacement if you will.

Many now-departed Romantic pianists used this notion as a license to dispense with tempo and go a-wandering into crowd-pleasing schmaltz, mugging all the way. The problem is that Chopin greatly appreciated the precision of Bach, as much as he did the lovely bel canto singing style demanded by Bellini’s operas of which the Polish composer was a lifelong fan. As a result, Chopin’s genius lay in his ability to incorporate Bellini’s singing, melodic style into his own compositions while allowing some emotional latitude in their performance—while strictly maintaining the meter of each piece.

In other words, rubato dictated that if you stole a little time from one note, you needed to redistribute it to another so that the rhythm wouldn’t waver as it might on an old, warped vinyl record. How badly, how wrongly this was sometimes interpreted in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

In Mr. Ax, for the first time, we encounter a pianist who actually gets the essence of rubato, including its odd, counterintuitive precision. To the ear accustomed to the standard approach to this concerto this was initially slightly off-putting Thursday evening—that is, until we grasped what it was that he was doing, something we haven’t heard in a long, long time. He was channeling the spirit of Chopin in nearly every detail, including moments of great subtlety and finesse, particularly in the lovely, yet at times surprisingly taut Larghetto at the concerto’s center.

In a work where the orchestra plays a distinctly second-fiddle role—no pun intended—the NSO accompanied Mr. Ax with just the right level of support. An additional plus were the short, twinkling, spot-on instrumental solo bits that make the finale quite special in this concerto. The audience knew a great performance when they saw and heard it, and rewarded both Mr. Ax and the NSO with a rousing innovation, making this weekend’s concert program an all-around winner.

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

The NSO will repeat this program tonight (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday) at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. For tickets and reservations, visit the NSO’s website here.

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, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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