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Posted at 12:53 AM ET, 12/ 3/2010

Krivine leads NSO

By Anne Midgette

Coming in Friday's Washington Post:

The line between old school and Old World was a hard one to establish firmly at the National Symphony Orchestra concert last night. The orchestra was in the hands of Emmanuel Krivine, a diminutive French-born violinist-turned-conductor who exudes a sense of bygone elegance, at once dapper and courtly. He took the podium at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the understatement of a man who would think it a matter of course to pull a chair out for a lady to sit in at dinner; the gesture may be a little old-fashioned or unexpected, and may not be to everyone’s taste, but it also has a certain charm. That charm, and understatement, and slightly old-fashioned approach characterized the evening, and the orchestra seemed to bask in it; they sounded perfectly lovely.

We have gotten so used to hearing Beethoven as slightly raw and violent, due to today’s notions of what constituted original early 19th-century performance style, that a refined reading sounds more old-fashioned than the purportedly authentic 1800s version. The evening opened with the “Egmont” overture, as lovingly crafted and shaped, warm and solid as a piece of antique furniture. In place of biting attacks, there were flowing legatos; in place of emotional outbursts, Krivine offered restraint, holding back the music, reining it in as it built to a judicious forte.

Judicious didn’t mean weighty: Krivine has a light touch, focusing on surfaces and sometimes sliding across them. Beethoven’s second piano concerto opened pellmell, with a kind of puppy-dog eagerness, so that the orchestra had to race to catch up. It’s the second time the NSO has played the piece this calendar year; I didn’t hear it in January, when they performed it with Michael Stern and Emanuel Ax, so I can’t compare that reading to this one with Louis Lortie, who brought an Apollonian beauty to the chains of round notes, each one full and shining, that he stretched up and down the keyboard. Like Krivine, Lortie is a shaper of sound, physically coaxing out phrases with a nodding head or conducting his right hand with motions of his left, but his playing had a firm clarity that made Krivine seem at times slightly effete. The orchestra was restrained when it might have been bolder -- in, for instance, the third movement, when thanks to Krivine’s penchant for slow crescendos, the orchestra’s entrance sounded pallid after the piano’s rousing call to arms. This was certainly deliberate, but it meant that Krivine rather undersold the piece.

The second half of the program looked, on paper, big and even blowsy: Liszt’s “Les Preludes” and Richard Strauss’s “Don Juan.” It might not have seemed a fit for the cat-like elegance of Krivine, but in fact Krivine’s old-fashioned air came straight out of the late 19th century, and this music was home turf. He kept his heart well off his sleeve, to be sure, but reveled in the range of colors the score and orchestra offered him, bringing out the ethereal other-worldly watercolor quality of the Liszt (which sounded like a direct precursor of the Wagner of “Tannhäuser’s” Venusberg), or letting the horns shine in the Strauss. Before the end of the Strauss, he even indulged in a moment of outright drama, creating and holding an achingly long silence in the music, a place of complete stillness without a single audience cough, before tying the whole thing up efficiently. Old-fashioned he may have been, but it sounded like he was doing something right: the NSO played with an old-fashioned solidity that suited the orchestra very well.

By Anne Midgette  | December 3, 2010; 12:53 AM ET
Categories:  Washington  
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I was disappointed in this concert. My perception was that the NSO played with extreme mediocrity. The string sections were making vague, uncoordinated noises all night, and there were some audible flubs in the horns. The opening of Egmont was notably anemic, as was much of Les Preludes. Krivine also appeared to lose the NSO completely at one point during Les Preludes. Lortie was as good as advertised, though I'm not sure how much good it's doing anyone to hear this specific Beethoven concerto over and over again (the BSO also performed it at Strathmore six weeks ago).

Overall, not much to like from where I sat (which as we all know does make a big difference in the KenCen concert hall).

Posted by: Lindemann777 | December 3, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

This concert was excellent as Ms Midgette has stated. I am surprised that lindemann777 felt as he did because I felt just the opposite. The NSO played very well, thank you. I felt they played to the music and to me. There was feeling to the sound and the players were top notch, especially Mr. Lorte. Mr Krivine's attitude was commendable as he directed the music in a way that I found heart-warming. Very enjoyable concert from beginning to end.

Posted by: scprice546 | December 3, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Like Lindemann777, I was somewhat disappointed in the concert though I was not as critical as he or she was. I'm glad Anne gave it a good review because it was a nice holiday gift for the audience. I thought that once or twice the strings seemed to be playing catchup with the winds and "Les Preludes" seemed to sound too much like a brass band than a full orchestra. The brass certainly dominated the strings. I don't wonder what Robert Battey would have thought. Maybe this piece was spoiled forever by too many hearings on "The Lone Ranger" where it was used as the music to introduce the second half of each episode. One of my seat mates reminded me that it had also been used for the old Flash Gordon serials back in the 40's. This shouldn't imply that I didn't enjoy the concert. I did. It just didn't match up with my expectations. But I delayed a trip in order to hear the concert and am glad I did. Overall, I though the Strauss' "Don Juan" came off best. By the way, our seat is in the obstructed view, first tier which we have had for several decades now. We particularly like these seats because, with the exception of the far stage right strings (and sometimes percussion) we can see most of the orchestra which helps in understanding the music.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | December 3, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I was extremely disappointed with the program. It was filled with second rate war horses. I love Strauss, but why Don Juan? And how many times have we heard the Beethoven pieces? The Lizst was an especially poor choice. "The Bear Goes Over the Mountain" etc. Inasmuch as Romanticsm was the theme, why was a Wagner prelude or overture not offered? Boo and hiss. Very conventional and unimaginative program.

Posted by: richardmelanson05 | December 5, 2010 12:04 AM | Report abuse

I assume the orchestra and conductor have limited rehearsal time, so perhaps the conductor and musicians got better as they played through the concert dates.

Having said that, I long for a time when the National Symphony might retain a conductor who actually stays with the orchestra for long periods rather than doing a few "fly-ins" each season. I'm thinking of Dohnanyi (sp?) and the Cleveland (long gone), or Levine and the Met, for example. How else can one get to know both the conductor and the musicians?

This catch-as-catch can programming does not give anyone, even the audience, a chance. Why couldn't we have gotten Marin Alsop to stay for a while? Not a "big name," I guess.

Posted by: JohnRDC | December 5, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

In the late 1980s I had a subscription to the Cleveland Orchestra with Christophe von Dohnanyi. It was a thrilling experience. The Cleveland was the best band in the land and the leader spent many more weeks in dreary Cleveland than today's conductors spend with their orchestras in much more exciting venues.

Posted by: richardmelanson05 | December 5, 2010 10:06 PM | Report abuse

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