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MUSIC: NSO in many moods

03.02.09
Gil Shaham
The Washington Times

The National Symphony Orchestra presented one of its most remarkable concerts of the season Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, niftily overcoming a major obstacle in the process.

 Because of extended maternity leave, scheduled guest conductor Xian Zhang had been forced to back out of her engagement with the orchestra at the last moment. Fortunately, the NSO managed to land the services of dynamic young Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu on short notice.

Maestro Lintu took up the challenge and, instead of changing the lineup, forged ahead with the scheduled program of all 20th-century works.

The result?

He and the NSO - an orchestra with which he had never worked - came up winners.

On tap for the night were Igor Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D Major and the divertimento from his ballet "Le Baiser de la fee" ("The Fairy's Kiss"); the suite from Kurt Weill's opera "Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny" ("The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny "); and the overture, waltz and finale from young British composer Thomas Ades' amazingly original 1995 opera "Powder Her Face."

The concerto and the ballet find the compositionally shape-shifting Stravinsky in neo-Baroque and neo-Romantic moods, respectively. His quirky concerto, which notably pays homage to Bach, was elegantly and sensitively performed by guest violinist Gil Shaham - who effortlessly connected with its dry wit and subtle dance movements.

The ballet divertimento finds Mr. Stravinsky in a more lyrical mood as he honors the memory of fellow Russian composer Peter IIich Tchaikovsky. Under Mr. Lintu's direction, the orchestra crafted a Romantic performance reminiscent of the older composer but with occasional astringencies that were distinctly Stravinsky.

The suite from Weill's "Mahagonny" is almost a miniversion of the opera he created with Bertolt Brecht, an odd work that explores the predictably bad end of a bizarre utopian society. The NSO crisply re-created the peculiarly decadent, cabaretlike mood of Weill's music as well as the composer's spare, acrid harmonies - leaving us to wonder why Washingtonians don't hear the distinctive Weill's music more often.

The surprise of the evening proved to be the short, manic orchestral excerpts from Mr. Ades' "Powder Her Face," a work charting the notorious romantic career of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (England's "Dirty Duchess") who died in 1993.

Mr. Ades' music is eerily reminiscent of Richard Strauss' swoozy, bitter satirical opera "Der Rosenkavalier," famed for its depiction of decadence among Europe's "better classes." However, the young British composer deploys all the weird musical techniques at his disposal - including oddly layered tempos, microtonal slides and a pop gun in the percussion section to kick the Duchess' decadence up a notch. Who says classical music is boring?

The NSO and Mr. Lintu brilliantly captured the music's antic spirit, making this edgy music sound at times like a scratchy 1930s lacquer record, unevenly lurching at 78 rpm on a no longer stable turntable. New to Washington, Mr. Ades' little suite was the crown jewel in a superbly conceived program finely crafted and performed by consummate professionals who all came through in a pinch.