NSO opens season with Shakespeare in words and music
Many classical composers have long eschewed using words to describe the narrative of their music. “If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music,” scoffed Gustav Mahler, who, however, more than once appended descriptive titles to movements in his symphonies.
The National Symphony Orchestra opened its subscription concert season Thursday night at the Kennedy Center with an unusual concert marking the 400th anniversary year of the death of William Shakespeare. Not only were supertitles displayed during the Washington premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s Falstaff, but actors were employed to perform Shakespearian excerpts before and between three compositions inspired by the Bard’s works.
The offbeat, genre-crossing program wasn’t something you’d expect from the NSO. Nor did the orchestra sound itself either, for the better. There were intonation problems in the winds, yet ensemble was tighter and cleaner than it’s been in recent memory, in what was one of the orchestra’s finer, more energetic nights.
While music director Christoph Eschenbach has honed the orchestra, credit also belongs to guest conductor Edward Gardner, chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, whose energetic style seemed to rouse the orchestra.
Sometimes with Eschenbach you felt the maestro was making the best of thematic programs foisted upon him. By contrast, Gardner, before he conducted a note of Elgar’s tone-poem became its salesman-in-chief, touting the work in a spoken introduction. He highlighted the musical re-creation of the drunken Falstaff’s snoring. as “The best musical snoring in history.” Indeed that episode, produced by low winds and low strings, along with fine violin duos from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and acting associate concertmaster Ricardo Cyncynates, provided the disjointed work’s sole highlights.
Fortunately another D.C. premiere, Sir William Walton’s Suite from Henry V, was far more accessible. Composed 30 years after the Elgar, its brassy opening was captivating, thanks to the trumpet playing of principal William Gerlach and Keith Jones. After a moving passacaglia depicting Falstaff’s death, military themes dominated much of the third movement, a depiction of the battle of Agincourt. A gorgeous moment after the battle was provided by the English horn solo of Kathryn Meany Wilson, quoting the French folk song Baïlèro, blissfully floating on a sea of muted strings.
Actor Matthew Rauch, best known for his portrayal of assassin Clay Burton in Cinemax’s Banshee, gave a highly physical performance of King Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech between movements four and five of the Walton. A bit later, before the final piece, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, actor William Vaughan popped up from within the orchestra as Romeo. Audrey Bertaux appeared above the stage, in the chorister seats, as Juliet. Stars of the nearby Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, their performance was admirable, but perhaps it benefited the orchestra most.
Provided with a dramatic context and several minutes to catch its breath, the NSO followed Gardner through nearly all but the final measures of Romeo and Juliet. While Gardner’s reading might have been too controlled in spots, he gets credit for attempting to interpret a warhorse that the NSO members likely could play in their sleep. Fine, too, was the warm tone of principal horn Abel Pereira and principal flute Aaron Goldman. Their playing in the Tchaikovsky was an example of the NSO at its best.
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center. nationalsymphony.org
Seth Arenstein is Editor of PR News Pro, a weekly publication about public relations and communications, and the chief television critic for CableFAX Daily. He plays trumpet in the Washington Conservatory of Music Orchestra. He received a Master’s degree in international relations from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis University.