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In performance: Repin at the NSO

Due to earlier deadlines because of breaking news, last night's NSO review is being held for tomorrow's paper, but here's the preview version for blog readers.
Edited to add: Correction: the review did make it into today's paper, but there was a delay posting it to the Web.

Cheap thrills: the NSO flirts with vulgarity in Russian program
by Anne Midgette

Perhaps it’s due to long years of habit that the National Symphony Orchestra appears to treat its Thursday night concerts like a final dress rehearsal. The opening chords of Brahms’s Violin Concerto last night sounded lackluster, as if the performers weren’t fully awake. By the middle of the movement, though, they had all shown up, engaged and present.

Iván Fischer, the orchestra’s principal conductor, would never miss out on the start of a piece like that. But on the podium last night was Alexander Vedernikov, making his debut with the orchestra, and — along with the evening’s soloist, the violinist Vadim Repin — a part of the symphony’s year-long “Focus on Russia” (something indicated in the program, rather alarmingly, with little crosses, as if marking them deceased).

Vedernikov is an odd bird. Some of his conducting was frankly pedestrian. He has a great big heavy beat that can result in plodding music, and sometimes did. On the other hand, that big beat seemed to be something that the orchestra could follow. Maybe there’s something to be said for simplicity. The level of musical inspiration wasn’t always high — indeed, Vedernikov made Prokofiev, whose Fifth Symphony was the other piece on the program, sound more like Khachaturian, no more than big and splashy. But the orchestra sounded, in many places, healthy and wonderful. It was as if the players were relaxing and saying, “Hey, this we can do!”
(read more after the jump)

One might want a more structured approach for the Brahms, one of the biggest and perhaps greatest concertos in the repertory, but one that can risk miring down without a strong hand to guide it. What Vedernikov brought out was the more ruddy side of Brahms; the final movement, in particular, had traits of Colonel Blimp, with an oom-pah flavor.
It was left to Repin to provide the finesse. He and the conductor weren’t always on the same page; indeed, at the start of the third movement Vedernikov started the music so quickly he even took his soloist by surprise. And Repin, who is all about nuance and artistry, seemed a little uncertain in the context of Vedernikov’s approach; he is never showy, but he began here sounding downright muted. Yet it was his playing that provided the evening’s telling details: the aching wistfulness of a double-stopped passage, or the almost tangible form that silence took as it coalesced like rock candy around the filament of a perfect tiny held note, spinning out at the end of the cadenza.

You could say that it wasn’t, actually, a very good concert. But it was a rather fun one.

The program repeats tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 6, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Next: In performance: Pro Musica Hebraica


NSO should invite the great Russian conductor of today. Not Gergiev (who often, the more he agitates, the more pedestrian his interpretations are) but Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. It is true that lately, in his performances, he tends to choose slow tempi (a "disease" that has affected a number of greats from the past), but his is still a sharp musical mind.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | November 6, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Goodness! Cheap thrills? Vulgarity? I'm sorry that Anne had a bad night at the NSO. I was at the same performance and had a very inspired evening. Maybe that's the advantage of not being a critic. Mabye it is also a problem with familiar works that we have expectations on how they should sound. To use a completely inappropriate example, it might be a bit like hearing, say, Andy Williams singing the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine." While both of these pieces were familiar to me, I didn't have a fixed idea when the concert began as to what they should sound like. While Anne found the opening of Brahms' Violin Concerto lackluster, I thought of it as subdued and I responded almost instantly with interest, wondering where this was going. It soon became much more familiar, but throughout the performance I heard fragments that seemed new and fresh to me. Often, new and fresh can come across as weird and annoying, but my reaction was enjoyment throughout, both the with orchestra and with the soloist and with their dialog. I certainly did not get any sense of Colonel Blimpness or oom-pah flavor from the last movement. I liked what I heard and so did the audience though Washington audiences are always warmly enthusiastic (I have been told.)

From time to time I have gone to open rehearsals of the NSO on Thursday and then to the concert Thursday night. As often as not, I like the rehearsals better. Every performance is unique, and my enjoyment of the concert depends as much on me as it does on the performance itself.

I liked Vedernikov's conducting very much as well. I hope he comes back. He seemed like an enthusiastic academic to me. Yes he had a well defined beat but I can't see that that should be a negative. The playing never sounded plodding though Anne did say that it could have resulted in plodding music, not that it did result that way. There was a good deal of dynamic range in the playing that made it seem dramatic to me.

As for the Prokofiev, I thought it was super, not merely big and splashy. I don't care for the loud parts of this symphony as much as I do the passages with the relentless beat. The program notes were also particularly helpful in the description of the music. Anne did say she had fun even though it was not a very good concert. For me, it was a great concert as well as a fun evening.

I have noticed that there are almost always microphones hanging above the stage. I presume the concerts are recorded for future listening and self criticism. I looked for them last night and they weren't there. Too bad. I would have enjoyed a CD of that concert.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | November 6, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Anne, Anne, Anne!
I agree with you at least in so far as Thursday night's concert was a great deal of fun! No, neither the Brahms nor the Prokofiev was necessarily "note perfect," but clearly the audience was touched intellectually and emotionally by both performances enough to give BOTH pieces sustained applause at the completion of their first movements (a fairly rare NSO occurrence).
The bobble at the beginning of the third movement of the Violin Concerto was noted, but Repin's adroit recovery was so smooth that probably at least half the audience was not aware that anything had gone awry.
Repin, Vedernikov and the NSO gave us an interpretation of the Brahms which had intellect, passion and a grounded sense of shared experience that, I hope, would have pleased Johannes Brahms himself.
As to the Prokofiev Fifth, an underperformed masterpiece, Vedernikov seemed, to my ears, to have shaped the piece with a true Russian ear for the uniquely amazing harmonic, rhythmic and timbre demands of Prokofiev at his most "serious," and at the same time most "playful" of moods.
Despite perhaps a touch of Khatchaturian "bombast," the architecture of the Fifth Symphony was clear and persuasive throughout. If we wanted "note perfect" performances (and we do), we'd be better served by staying home and hearing our personal favorite recordings. An occasional "oops" just adds to the frisson of a live performance, in my opinion. And the ability of true artists to "cover" (or "recover") from an "oops" just adds to the fun, adventure and excitement of traveling from Delaware to experience an almost always highly rewarding NSO subscription series concert.
Commenter Kirchhoff, above, touched on what, for me, characterized the whole program last night. Both pieces, in a sense old "war horses," came across in the hands of our NSO guest artists as somehow "new" and "fresh"! I loved every minute of it!
Based on last night's "exciting" and "fun" performances of the Brahms and Prokofiev, I fully intend to renew my season subscription and hope, in future seasons, to continue to have many such great listening experiences as I did with the highly satisfying program last night.

Posted by: geoxensen1 | November 6, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Prokofiev's 5th Symphony is usually the one performed in concert most often -- though not as frequently as some of the other orchestral staples. I enjoy the 5th a great deal, but my favorite Prokofiev symphony is probably the 6th, an extremely interesting and appealing work that hardly ever gets a "live" performance. A few years ago, Leonard Slatkin and the NSO made a fine recording of the 6th, which was available on RCA, IIRC, for about 10 minutes before deletion. The 7th Symphony -- very different from the others -- has its own set of charms.

Posted by: pgaron | November 6, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

“From time to time I have gone to open rehearsals of the NSO on Thursday and then to the concert Thursday night. As often as not, I like the rehearsals better. Every performance is unique …”
(William Kirchhoff)

I’d be curious to learn more about how one attends open or dress rehearsals by the NSO. I have never been to one, and did not know they were ever open to the public. (I have been to dress rehearsals by the Washington National Opera and the Washington Shakespeare Theater.)

Has the NSO instituted an Open Rehearsal Subscription Program similar to the beloved Katharine Hanrahan open rehearsal subscription series offered by the San Francisco Symphony? Does any “insider” know whether the new NSO conductor and also new Kennedy Center music director Christoph Eschenbach plans to institute such a series?

I know from family and colleagues in San Francisco that the Katharine Hanrahan rehearsal subscription series is exceptionally popular, and that it has (along with the SFS’s Keeping Score programs) helped to demystify the world of classical symphonic music, especially for older people and students – either those new to classical music, those returning to classical music, or classical concert veterans -- who have grown to prefer these insightful rehearsals to the matinee format, or to the evening concert format.

My contacts loved it the past few weeks when, on the spur of the moment, guest conductor and violinist Itzhak Perlman chose suddenly to dismiss half of the string section to obtain the sound he wanted in the Bach violin concerto #2 and then conduct much of the rehearsal as a string master class; and when Osmo Vanska (and Vadim Repin) spent the whole morning session rehearsing the Aulis Sallinen Symphony #1 and the Sibelius Violin Concerto, completely skipping the Beethoven Symphony #8, which was also on the program that evening. Can we call these San Francisco open rehearsals ‘alternative classical music programming’, involving some risk on the part of the participants?

Posted by: snaketime1 | November 9, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

@snaketime1: In my case, I contribute to the NSO. There may be other means of obtaining tickets to the open rehearsals. Six are offered to contributors from which they can choose 1, 2 or 3 depending on their level of giving. And, the estimated cost of the rehearsal is subtracted from the tax allowable contribution.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | November 12, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Interesting Mr Kirchhoff. Thank you. I have contributed to WPAS which allowed us vouchers to attend pre-performance talks, but I didn't knew that open rehearsals were a benefit of contributing to the NSO.
I probably should have guessed as much. I still think a more formal monthly rehearsal subscription program is an idea to be explored.

Posted by: snaketime | November 12, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

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