Vi­o­lin­ist in NSO pro­gram thrills au­di­ence, but not critic

The Washington Post - - THE RELIABLE SOURCE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE

When a critic leaves the con­cert hall, they don’t al­ways know what the au­di­ence thinks of the per­for­mance. It was, how­ever, abun­dantly clear Thurs­day night that the au­di­ence in the Kennedy Cen­ter Con­cert Hall was gen­er­ally ex­cited about Sergey Khacha­tryan’s per­for­mance of Beethoven’s vi­o­lin con­certo with the Na­tional Sym­phony Orches­tra and Cris­tian Mace­laru. I, sadly, was in the mi­nor­ity, but while I was greatly look­ing for­ward to hear­ing one of my fa­vorite pieces, this ren­di­tion left me cold.

The pro­gram it­self was re­fresh­ing on pa­per. For one thing, it stood the usual or­der of events on its head by of­fer­ing the con­certo first and a new work, sand­wiched be­tween two shorter works, on the sec­ond half of the pro­gram. (One might ob­serve that if some­thing as rel­a­tively mi­nor as this comes across as a re­fresh­ing change, the orches­tra world re­ally needs to get out more.)

For an­other thing, it of­fered a pleas­ing breadth of mu­sic, jux­ta­pos­ing the Beethoven with three wa­ter-themed works by Si­belius, Smetana and Ma­son Bates, the Kennedy Cen­ter’s com­poser-in­res­i­dence, who wrote his “Liq­uid In­ter­face” for the NSO a decade ago. And then, it had the Beethoven, which is a piece I have a hard time not loving.

I was sorry, then, to feel that this par­tic­u­lar per­for­mance of the Beethoven sim­ply failed to con­nect.

Mace­laru, who has ap­peared sev­eral times with the orches­tra, most re­cently at Wolf Trap with the pup­pet ver­sion of “The Firebird” last sum­mer, had the shape of the piece down but rode over its con­tours with a kind of em­pha­sis that tended to pound the mu­sic into sub­mis­sion rather than in­flam­ing its se­crets, and ul­ti­mately seemed to lapse into a kind of same­ness.

He had his hands full fol­low­ing Khacha­tryan, who liked to slow the tem­pos down — in­deed, his first en­trance was pre­ceded by a lit­tle pause, like a fig­u­ra­tive throat-clear­ing, that gave a sense of shift­ing gears but some­what de­tracted from the vi­o­lin’s usual soar­ing, ex­ul­tant rush to join, or tower over, the orches­tra. Through­out, the vi­o­lin­ist tended to tug down­ward at the tempo, clear­ing a lit­tle space around his line — which would have been fine, had he made real use of it.

But for all the singing beauty of his sound, it didn’t seem, to me, con­sis­tently en­gaged — mo­ments of real ex­pres­siv­ity and con­nec­tion yielded, over and over, to pas­sages that seemed to coast on sheer abil­ity, or oc­ca­sional in­fe­lic­i­ties: harsh open­ings or dropped end­ings to phrases, which I be­lieve were a de­lib­er­ate part of the in­ter­pre­tive ef­fect. The pauses and slow­nesses didn’t add up, for me, to any kind of new or par­tic­u­larly mov­ing take on this piece, al­though I am happy that the per­for­mance did ev­i­dently touch many others.

The three takes on wa­ter, on the sec­ond half, were more in­volv­ing, though I re­mained un­con­vinced that Mace­laru was re­ally making deep con­tact with the orches­tra, which surely would have been happy on this wa­tery pro­gram with a less dry hall, like the ones it re­cently per­formed at in Rus­sia. It’s al­ways nice to hear an orches­tra re­vive a piece it com­mis­sioned some time ago, and the Bates piece has held up well.

The com­poser him­self soloed, as is his wont, on an Ap­ple com­puter on a ta­ble by the per­cus­sion sec­tion, and I’m sure the recorded ef­fects — evoca­tive creaks and plashes and crack­les of wind and rain and weather — dom­i­nated some peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the piece, but the main point was how well they in­ter­acted with the acous­tic in­stru­ments in a piece that con­stantly plays with the con­trast be­tween in­di­vid­ual sounds and the fluid tapestry they make when brought to­gether. In­di­vid­ual per­cus­sive notes, like sin­gle rain­drops, emerge against the sus­tained flow of a shower of chimes, or winds, or the liq­uid plashes of xy­lo­phones, in mu­sic that kept of­fer­ing glimpses of dif­fer­ent styles — from the haze of Im­pres­sion­ism to a hint of a groove — like wa­tery re­flec­tions of re­al­ity. The pro­gram re­peats Sat­ur­day at 8 p.m.

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