Live Review: Lorin Maazel Guides NSO to Technical Glory

lorin maazelIf we were the National Symphony Orchestra, we’d ask the 79-year-old conductor, Lorin Maazel, back anytime. A lot of great things happen under the baton of a man who took his first conducting lesson at age seven.

From the moment Maazel took the podium to conduct Night on Bald Mountain (the Rimsky-Korsakov arranged, Fantasia favorite by Mussorgsky), you knew the highpoint of the evening would be tight control — no matter the piece.  A night of spot-on entrances and deft togetherness reigned in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Maazel is the quiet lion of conducting.  There’s very little fanfare in body presence, all energies go toward the sound.  In fact, he hardly moves, except from the elbow down, each move as precise as the handle he gets on the orchestra.  He only uses three simple pivot points: wrist, elbow, shoulder — in that order of importance — never in an untidy tandem.  The baton moves effortless and often, doing most of the “work.”

By contrast, the night’s soloist, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, exuded deep-grunt style physical work, playing Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto.  Now she did not break a sweat to get from an all-too-quiet piano to a bounding fortissimo, but she is the femme sportive when it comes to playing style.  Think The Great Gatsby’s Jordan Baker striding onto the stage with a liberated, jaunty gait, and you have Nadja – bouncing to center front in trim white pants and a casual, beaded tank top. When she planted her feet firm, spread eagle, and swayed from side-to-side to follow the orchestra’s tempos, she seems as ready to swing a golf club as to hoist the violin back under her chin.

Does that kill her sound?  Not at all.  If anything, she opted for too soft a sound on the Barber’s sweeter, higher moments.  The net result: neither she nor the orchestra tread upon the other, delivering seamless hand-offs until the Presto in moto perpetuo – where she ran headlong into undifferentiated notes, arm pumping, until a sudden halt, with one last ricocheting swipe on the strings to end.

Maazel’s own composition, The Giving Tree offered unexpected tie-ins to Bald Mountain and the D-minor symphony finale. If you’ve read Shel Silverstein’s book of the same name, you might not expect the part of tree to come across in cello obbligato.  However, that’s what the Maestro called for, and his take on the story intrigued, but makes not a lasting contribution to the repertoire (I whispered to my seatmate: “I don’t see this becoming the Peter and the Wolf of our time”).  But why expect Maazel to be Prokofiev, in this off-kilter half-lyric, half-dissonant little adventure? The touches of woodblock and xylophone kept the whimsy of Shel in the picture.  Silences where only narrator spoke were a bit too grave, but romancing a tree’s happiness in unstinting sacrifice is not your ordinary tone poem content.

It is my personal feeling (in agreement with his contemporaries) that César Franck did not succeed in taking the French symphony to new heights in his D minor symphony, but merely rolled happily in a perpetuating “U” of gentle modulations.  Again the maestro kept all on the ball from memory… as simple as turning a key and getting the NSO to purr.

All in all, a blustery program, good for head-nodding vigor, in which the music flows freely although the sentiments fail to ground into one concrete emotional catharsis.  For once, this has nothing to do with the musicians and everything to do with the composers.

We also note that the flutist dropped every ounce of shyness over which we worried last week, and her counterpart in the oboe carried more than his weight to lightly vault us into the second movement of the Barber concerto and beyond.

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One Response to “Live Review: Lorin Maazel Guides NSO to Technical Glory”

  1. E.K. says:

    This is super nice writing, chicky: “as simple as turning a key and getting the NSO to purr.”

    You’ve sent me to the library to do some checking out of CDS. Thanks!

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