Paul Jacobs delivers a tour de force in NSO premiere of Rouse Organ Concerto

Fri May 12, 2017 at 12:12 pm

Paul Jacobs gave the Washington premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto with the NSO Thursday night.

Christopher Rouse is one of the most engaging symphonic composers working in the United States at present. The National Symphony Orchestra performed the Baltimore-born composer’s Trombone Concerto earlier this year, and it was one of three commissioning orchestras behind his new Organ Concerto. The NSO gave the local premiere of Rouse’s 20-minute work Thursday night, under the leadership of guest conductor Gustavo Gimeno.

The first movement opened with a calamitous tumult of sound, a dissonant thicket of clashes. Organist Paul Jacobs, for whom the riotously challenging solo part was written, rose out of that chaos on a long toccata-like section for the manuals, his fingers flying over the keyboards of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall organ. The chaos was intended, no doubt, but the frenetic pacing of this movement by Gimeno was uneven, the metric shifts between orchestra and soloist not quite aligning.

Rouse created his most evocative sounds in the gloomy second movement, which made the most of the unusual orchestration he chose, eschewing woodwinds except for bass clarinet and contrabassoon. As the piece sank into the depths, the contrabassoon and low strings lamented over a keening organ ostinato. Rouse made an arc from the opening cluster of dissonance through more and more consonant harmonies until the second movement came to rest, perhaps too sweetly, on a major chord.

A third movement that was too similar in quality to the first weakened the overall effect of the piece. From the major chord, a dancing subject grew through contrapuntal treatment, percolating through the orchestra, gradually taking us back to another dissonant cluster at the end.

Jacobs was astounding in his technique at both manuals and pedals—his orchestral registrations filling out the piece in a way that blended almost imperceptibly with the orchestra, supplying those missing woodwind sonorities. The soloist capped the evening with a no-holds-barred rendition of Bach’s dizzying Fugue in D major, BWV 532, shorn of its prelude.

Some of the Organ Concerto’s weaker moments in this performance may have been due to Gimeno’s leadership. In the opening work, the rather unimaginative choice of the Suite No. 1 from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, the Valencia-born conductor’s gestures seemed rushed and  the music choppy in style. Violins were not on the same track in the “Miniature Overture,” and the March seemed too fast for its own good.

Gustavo Gimeno

Principal musicians did well in their star turns. Lambert Orkis, playing celesta, was light as a feather in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and harpist Adriana Horne, florid in the lengthy introduction to the concluding “Waltz of the Flowers.” Gimeno seemed unable to coordinate the rubato in the latter movement, and both the “Russian Dance” and “Chinese Dance” felt unsettled in tempo. The flute section shone brightly, perfectly in step together in the “Dance of the Reed Flutes.” For such an attractive and varied score, Gimeno’s performance was too often plain and four-square.

The conductor had similar issues in another glistening demonstration of Russian orchestration, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Fortunately, the NSO musicians provided ample highlights, beginning with concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, whose violin glowed with spellbinding ardor as the eponymous storyteller. The honeyed tone she brought to this famous part set the whole piece a notch above the norm, making one believe that the cruel sultan could truly stay his hand just to hear that voice for one more night.

Various details of the stories recounted in the work came into beautiful relief, with excellent playing from principal bassoonist Sue Heineman and principal oboist Nicholas Stovall in the second movement. The violins provided luscious sound on the love themes of the third movement, complemented by arching, amorous sighs from clarinet and flute. The precisely drilled fourth movement, crisp of articulation, made for a satisfying conclusion to the evening.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.; 202-467-4600.

One Response to “Paul Jacobs delivers a tour de force in NSO premiere of Rouse Organ Concerto”

  1. Posted May 20, 2017 at 10:52 pm by tubarec

    incoherent review…the orchestra played alone???

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