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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Concert Review: His Favorite Instrument

The National Symphony Orchestra closes out Spring For Music.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Dmitri Shostakovich (left) and his good friend and interpreter Mstislav Rostropovich.
The National Symphony Orchestra has called the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. home since that venue opened in 1971. In 1974, the NSO gained its most famous music director, when the Russian conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich took over the position shortly after his defection from the former Soviet Union. He held that post for 23 years, stepping down in 1997 to resume an international performing career.

Although "Slava" was an international virtuoso performer who owned cellos by Stradivarius, Guarneri and Storioni, he occasionally referred to the NSO as his "favorite instrument." That reputation was on the line Saturday night, when the NSO came to Carnegie Hall to close this year's Spring For Music festival. Under the baton of current music director Christoph Eschenbach, the orchestra offered a triptych of pieces in tribute to Rostropovich.

The concert opened with Slava, Slava a short, percussion-heavy tone poem by composer Rodion Shchedrin. A play on Mr. Rostropovich's nickname, ("slava" also means "glory" in Russian) this was a fanfare designed to celebrate the Rostropovich legacy. Shchedrin added bell plates, heavy timpani part and extensive combination of chimes and thunderous chords for brass, sounding like the Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov without the great choral writing or that opera's melodic inspiration.

For Arthur Schnittke's haunting Viola Concerto, the orchestra was joined by David Aaron Carpenter. Written just before its composer was diagnosed with cancer, this is a haunting work which relies on an opening note-row to generate its melodic material. The opening movement is slow and haunting, creating an eerie, gray atmosphere, with swirling mists of low strings (there are no violins) surrounding the plaintive soloist.

The second movement featured fiery rhythms and muscular chords, with Mr. Carpenter playing arpeggios and double stops to create a raging torrent of sound. This paved the way for the slow third movement, which sounded like a stumble through a pitch-black labyrinth that had no exit. The work climaxed with a series of fortissimo brass chords, and ended with the solo viola dying slowly away, fading into silence and darkness.

Darkness describes the genesis of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, a work that saved the composer's career following the first round of Soviet artistic purges under Stalin. Working without a score, Mr. Eschenbach led an iterpretation that favored sinew over lyricism, Pounding rhythms in the second movement brought the orchestra's lurching dance to a fevered climax that shook the rafters, swept aside for a light-footed Trio section.

The slow movement was the highlight here, a long, spinning melody in the low strings and solo winds that may be a carefully coded expression of the composer's fear in the face of censorship and oppression. Mr. Eschenbach led a beautiful, slow build to a muscular, brassy climax. The massive finale was a triumphant blast overwhelming the audience with the sounds of shock and awe in brass and percussion. There is some question as to whether the composer meant this to be a genuine celebration of the triumph of socialism. But there is no doubt that the NSO's tribute to their late leader was most heartfelt.

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