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Xian Zhang leads lyrical Gil Shaham, richly intricate National Symphony

Gil Shaham
Washington Post

By Anne Midgette

There is a Chinese theme to the program that the National Symphony Orchestra is offering this week. Yet so many themes are going on that China is only one thread in an intricate and colorful fabric.

Central to the Chinese theme is conductor Xian Zhang, a small woman of tremendous, focused energy who got her start in the West as assistant and then associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic; she is now conducting around the world. Zhang, making her NSO debut with this program, offers a no-nonsense mien -- she wore a suit that looked much like a standard conductor's tails, sans cummerbund and tie -- coupled with a lot of power and technical aplomb.

Those gifts were best showcased in the "Chinese" pieces on the program, which weren't Chinese, except in their subject matter. The first, Stravinsky's "Le chant du rossignol" -- a suite fashioned from his opera based on Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Nightingale" -- is set at the court of the Chinese emperor. The titular bird serenades him, is upstaged by a mechanical counterpart, but returns to sing to the ailing Emperor and helps restore his health.

The other, Bartók's suite from his ballet "The Miraculous Mandarin," is based on a macabre one-act play about lowlifes who use a girl to lure men into their apartment to rob them, but the criminals run up against a supernatural Chinese customer who seems unkillable until the girl embraces him.

Both pieces are complex, angular, intricate, packed with different kinds of sound (Stravinsky's ideas of how to juxtapose orchestral timbres are an unfailing source of joy), switching from dense counterpoint to comedy-film sound effects. This is the kind of music that Zhang is great at. She dug right in with all of her force and power and precision, keeping the orchestra tightly wound, bristling with ideas.

Another theme, though, was Russia. The Stravinsky was preceded, before the intermission, by Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto, showcasing the lyrical soloist Gil Shaham. Even more than "Le Rossignol," this work melds angularity (Prokofiev's trademark jagged rhythms) with a singing, soaring solo line. The violin opens the piece alone with a keening song, and the orchestra follows, sounding as if it is tiptoeing, with a touch of exaggeration, like a cartoon sleuth trailing his quarry. Shaham played intimately, his body curling around his instrument, often seeming to address a single person, veering between Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster, and Zhang on the podium, or turning to the rich cellos (sitting, unusually for the NSO, on the right) while plucking out the second movement pizzicato, as if sustaining several private conversations.

And still another theme was early modernism. All three of these works were written in the first half of the 20th century; the earliest piece on the program was the first, Debussy's "Prelude à l'après-midi d'un faune." Three of the four pieces were also short stories, narratives rather than abstractions.

Zhang, though, is less adept at bringing out emotional substance. For all her technical brilliance, her "Afternoon of a faun" was a little flat; she's better at the more glittering textures than the sensuous ones. One wanted a little more of the live nightingale, figuratively speaking, and a little less of the dazzle of the mechanical one. That doesn't detract, though, from the satisfaction of this rich and thoughtful program.