Meister, NSO explore fairy tales, light and dark
A crowd turned out to hear Hilary Hahn at the Friday performance of the National Symphony Orchestra. The beloved American violinist’s solo turn in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor was set amid a program of fairy-tale settings by Dvořák, Janáček, and Richard Strauss. It marked the first appearance since 2014 of Cornelius Meister at the podium.
The young German conductor’s star continues to rise, as he has added new posts at the Stuttgart State Opera and Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra to his work as chief conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. His guest stints with the NSO and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in past years have not always inspired confidence, but this time around he seemed more relaxed and assured in his approach to the music. None of the music was exactly rare, all heard from this ensemble in the last five to seven years, but it made a compelling evening altogether.
Dvořák took the story of The Noon Witch, a symphonic poem written in 1896, by Karel Jaromír Erben. It tells the story of a mother who threatens her misbehaving son with the apparition of the witch, retold by Meister in a solemn tone before the performance. Meister’s approach was solid and strong, showing great patience throughout the evening. The menacing bass clarinet representing the witch nicely answered the oboe’s discordant taunting for the child. Low brass and rustling strings eerily evoked the evil spirit’s appearance.
The high point was Václav Talich’s suite of music from the first act of Janáček’s opera, The Cunning Little Vixen. Janáček’s harmonic structures were most diverting at this point in his long career, and with the vocal parts removed, Talich’s arrangement focused attention on the cinematic scope of the orchestration. Amid the opening percolations of strings and flutes in the first movement, solos from violin, viola, and harp were woven together into charming dances by the forest creatures. Oscillating harmonies reminiscent of Debussy underscored the dream of the captured vixen, as Meister led the musicians through a crescendo opening up to a vast orchestral vista.
The NSO last played Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche under Christoph Eschenbach on its 2013 European tour. Meister’s interpretation was more tight and coherent than that one, led off by the boisterous solo of principal horn player Abel Pereira. The NSO musicians savored both the score’s light delicacy and crashing percussion to mark the title character’s more outrageous pranks. The clarinet solos, as Till seemed to twist on the gallows, were especially funny but grim at the end.
Hilary Hahn is not a bravura sort of violinist, so her rendition of this Mendelssohn chestnut was more immaculate than gutsy. Meister proved an excellent accompanist, expertly guiding the NSO through the shifts of tempo in the first movement. Hahn took her time with the cadenza, adding to the impression of meditative approach, although the flautando notes were astonishing in their beauty.
Meister’s gestures failed to keep the audience from bursting into applause at the end of the first movement, in spite of the B held in the bassoon to segue into the slow movement. Hahn did well to keep the tempo moving in the second movement, often taken too slowly for its marking of Andante. In keeping with Hahn’s demure style, the sections in octaves and low on the G string were well controlled.
The high point was the feather-light finale, reminiscent of the composer’s love of delicate scherzos sprinkled with fairy dust, and therefore fitting in best with the rest of the program. Set at a tempo that was quick but never frenetic, here was playing worthy of the ovation it received. Hahn acknowledged the audience response with an encore, the Gigue from Bach’s Violin Partita in E Major.
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. kennedy-center.org; 202-467-4600.