Monday, November 08, 2010

National Symphony Orchestra: live

I don't know why I'm telling you this. But I could say that about every posting.

This past weekend, I attended a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra at Washington's Kennedy Center. On the program were Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the Prokofiev Violin Concerto no. 2, Stravinsky's The Song of the Nightingale, and Bartók’s Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin.


It's not often that I go to live orchestra concerts; I average about one a year. Besides the expense, there's the Hassle Factor. The term "Hassle Factor" was devised, I believe, by a San Francisco Chronicle entertainment writer in the '60s when I was a Berkeley freak. It stands for everything unpleasant you have to put up with surrounding the event you want to attend.

To fetch a concert in Washington, you have quite a Hassle Factor. Unless you live in the city, which I am happy to say I don't, you either take the Metro, a crumbling '70s legacy, or drive in congestion and crazy traffic patterns. The automobile and transportation engineers have long since destroyed L'Enfant's classic, rational street plan for D.C.

Then there is the venue, Kennedy Center. It has a nice location aside the Potomac River. That is the end of its virtues.


The K.C. is a design from the '60s, a real bad period for public architecture. It combines monumental grandiosity with sterility. It's hard to make polished white marble walls ugly, but the K.C. manages to. Now, trying to make the place "cool," the management has filled the red-carpeted corridors and foyers with video monitors hyping shows at the Center, shrines to John F. Kennedy, and bizarre temporary sculptures. The current display consists of lots of piles of rice, each grain representing the number of people in some category — population per square mile of various countries, number of psychiatrists per 10,000 inhabitants of Calgary, malnourished children in Botswana, that kind of thing. The displays take up a lot of the formerly generous space, so with three shows scheduled simultaneously at the K.C. you get airport-like crowds.

The concert hall itself was redesigned a few years ago. It no longer resembles a high school gym. Now it's got a little more warmth, like an oversized motel lobby.


Your reward for putting up with all that is the opportunity to hear a live concert by a fine orchestra with a world-class soloist. There's nothing quite like it. Audiophiles argue about how close even the best recordings and sound reproduction equipment can get to the real thing, but most acknowledge that there's a certain je ne sais quoi about being there with no electronics between you and the musicians.

Seats in the front of the ground level and the back are cheaper than those at a medium distance from the stage. I like to sit up front; I was in the fourth row this latest time. Orchestra seating cognoscenti love to tell you that the best seats for hearing the music are in something like Row XX of the third balcony ("you can really hear the blending of the instruments"). They're welcome to their eagle's nests. Cost considerations aside, I'd rather be up front where I can clearly see the conductor, soloists, and (some of) the musicians.

It's true that the sound isn't perfectly blended — the strings, placed in front, can drown out others such as wind instruments behind them, although a good conductor will see to it that the balances are "transparent." And I'll own that if you're close to the stage, you can't see what some of the musicians are doing; the price for seeing very well what the violinists, violists, cellists, bassists, soloist and conductor are up to.

But that sense of connection with at least some of the musicians is a large part of why some of us still (if we're lucky) go to concerts when there are note-perfect recordings of everything in the standard repertoire. We want a human dimension to go with the sound.


Eh? So how was the music, you ask?

The NSO doesn't have the reputation of being even one of the the top American orchestras, much less a great one by world standards. Well, I'm here to tell you that they can sound glorious, and did. I've heard the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and several of the London orchestras in concert, and they were cracking, but I can't honestly say they were a lot more impressive than the NSO this weekend.

The Prokofiev is perhaps my favorite modern violin concerto. Gil Shaham, the Israeli virtuoso, was the soloist. I don't know how a violinist or a case-hardened music critic would have rated his playing, but it was dazzling as far as I was concerned, fiery and refined as needed.

I've noticed in recent years that violin soloists are getting a lot more animated, using body language and gestures. The first time I was aware of this phenomenon was in a 1991 concert, when Nigel Kennedy (who now bills himself as just Kennedy — why not go all the way and call himself "The Kennedy"?) came out dressed like a rock musician and stamped his foot once in a while to emphasize a point while playing the Elgar concerto.

Shaham didn't wrap himself in flashy attire, quite the reverse, a gray suit and red tie like a Lexus salesman, but he hammed it up just enough to be fun to watch as well as wonderful to listen to. There seemed to be a lot of electricity between Shaham and the first violinist, Nurit Bar-Josef (a woman, and judging from her name, also of Israeli ancestry). Even while playing they often made eye contact. Were they flirting?

I would ascribe this purely to my imagination and think that they just shared a professional admiration for one another (Bar-Josef could probably be a soloist herself if she wanted that kind of life), or maybe a shared nationality had something to do with it. I probably wouldn't even mention it except that I overhead a woman seated nearby mention during intermission that she'd had the same impression.

That's one example of what I mean about the human dimension of concertgoing.


The conductor was Xian Zhang. Yes, she is a native of China. When classical music finally diminishes to obscurity in the West, the Asians will carry on the tradition. Lots of the younger generation of classical artists are from China, Japan, and Korea.

She seemed to know her business, and judging by how well the orchestra played, maybe Zhang inspired them. Or maybe an orchestra, tired of the mannerisms of their regular leader, perks up for a guest conductor. Or — unorthodox thought — maybe 90 percent of the time it makes no difference who is conducting.

After all, surely almost all these musicians had often played the Debussy and the Prokofiev previously. The chances are many had performed the other pieces, too. If any orchestra musician happens to be reading this, tell me, because I'm really curious: do you play your part differently in any significant way when Eugen Jaegermeister blows into town for a guest conducting gig and leads a couple of rehearsals?


The programming for the second half of the concert wasn't ideal. Either the Stravinsky or the Bartók would have been fine, but the two together were too much of a good thing, driven and intense. Nightingale was revised in 1917, when Stravinsky still had Petroushka, The Firebird, and The Rite of Spring in his bloodstream. It is bracing, thrilling music, with the composer's gift for orchestration much in evidence. 

Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin suite is also from his "mad scientist" period, a searing and grotesque piece that ends in a barbaric climax — I don't know how the players had enough energy left by that point to raise the roof, but they did.




Sheila said...

Your descriptions of the Kennedy Center are spot on. I remember when my piano teacher visited the yet-to-be-completed facility and raved about it; when I first visited with my father a year or so later, I was far more dazzled to be out on a school night for a concert than I was with the building. Add to that the farce of the Kennedy Center culturally-correct honors, and that about wraps it up.

Rick Darby said...


Aside from the K.C.'s aesthetic shortcomings, I don't think it's ever met proof-of-concept criteria. Why do we need a huge building containing four concert spaces of different sizes presenting grand opera, Hair, children's programs, comedy shows, etc., etc.? Subsidized by taxpayers and corporations?

Maria said...

The Kennedy Center Honors used to be much more prestigious than they are today. Now it's just a parade of "diversity" honors.