Well, the fretting about which concerts to swap into and out of is over,
and it's time to see how the various trade-offs worked out. Last Thursday
I attended the first concert of this year's NSO season, the next-to-last
one before Leonard Slatkin steps down. The performance consisted of
Brahms's Tragic Overture, the Bruch Violin Concerto, and Corigliano's
Symphony No. 1.
There was not much to say about the Brahms. In the only negative thing
he could find to say about this concert, Washington Post reviewer Tim
Page called it "desultory" (registration required but free).
I didn't agree. Just how much should be expected from an opening piece,
one that was probably chosen to warm the orchestra up for a star soloist
and a difficult symphony? What I want is intensity and professional
ensemble, both of which were there. I certainly didn't think the NSO
mailed this one in.
Next up was Nikolaj Znaider in the Bruch VC. Znaider, who does not hail
from Russia but was born in Denmark, has been making quite a name for
himself lately. I got the impression that he paid just as much attention
to the first two movements as to the third, which has the big tune that
everyone knows. His pianissimo playing was even more impressive than
the star turns in the finale. This was a superb performance by everyone;
they turned what is a very familiar piece into something special.
Next up was the featured work, Corigliano's Symphony No. 1. This is
the AIDS symphony, whose first movement is titled "Of Rage and Rememberance."
In his pre-performance talk, Slatkin noted how -- with about 800 concert
performances worldwide since its debut, this is probably the only symphony
since Shostakovich 11 that has entered the frequently performed repertoire.
He also said that now that a certain time has elapsed, it was possible
to view the work more as pure music and less as a programmatic work.
This is a really angry work, at least at the start. Very loud, with
clashing dissonances and meters; cross-currents everywhere, meant to
signal dementia. The off-stage piano playing of a tango theme, when
blending with the non-melodic chaos on stage, was really striking. It
was meant, of course, to pay tribute to a specific AIDS casualty that
the composer knew. The cello solo that portrays another victim was only
one more of the many highlights of this arresting piece. We are becoming
big Corigliano fans. We chose this concert specifically because of the
success of last year's Piano Concerto. Slatkin had good news afterward:
the NSO is going to play the Second Symphony next season, and in the
spring he will be doing the Third -- a symphony for wind band, with none
other than the President's Own. We will attend both of these.
In the Afterwords discussion after the concert, Corigliano made several
remarks indicating he does not quite agree with Slatkin's observation
about pure music vs. programmaticism, though he didn't quite address
the idea specifcally and he didn't use that ridiculous word. Observing
that he was paying tribute to specific people who died, Corigliano said
he has put the names of the victims in the score at the passages that
refer to them just to remind the conductor and players that actual people
were being remembered. Corigliano, Slatkin, Znaider, and off (and
on)-stage pianist Lambert Orkis answered questions from the audience.
These discussions, which Slatkin has introduced probably in an effort
to boost attendance at Thursday-night concerts, are a fabulous extra
value and were the decider in whether I got a season ticket this year,
as finding seven concerts that appealed was a tough decision this year.
Speaking of attendance, however, I'd say the hall was only about two-thirds
full; I hope Page's review boosted attendance at the remaining two
The NSO season is off to a great start. As this season is kind of a
patchwork, the schedule is loaded in clusters. The next concert comes
just this week: Pinkas Zuckerman is doing a Bach Chaconne, the Berg VC,
and Harold in Italy.