Subbing violinist makes thrilling DC debut with Gardner, National Symphony

Fri May 10, 2019 at 12:01 am

Emmanuel Tjeknavorian performed Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

Edward Gardner led a dramatic program Thursday night with the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The English conductor, last here in 2016, brought new ideas and energy to three pieces that are familiar enough in most concert halls. And he did it while having to switch soloists mid-week.

Gardner, former music director of the English National Opera and now principal conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, gave bold shape to the Overture from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. He opened the piece at a roiling tempo, with imperious horn sound on the title character’s theme and chromatic runs in the strings rising and falling like sea swells. 

The pacing never flagged, moving breathlessly into the sailors’ dance, matching by the panting and seething sounds of the storm. Only at the end, as Senta’s love redeems the doomed Dutchman, did Gardner encourage the NSO to luxuriate, giving that mysterious coda all the radiance and tenderness they could.

Emmanuel Tjeknavorian was the hero of the evening, stepping in on short notice for the ailing Renaud Capuçon in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. The Austrian violinist, 24 years old, won Second Prize at the 2015 Sibelius Violin Competition in Helsinki and was making his Washington debut. As luck would have it, he had played the Sibelius concerto just last week in Milan.

Tjeknavorian not only filled in admirably, he gave a phenomenal rendition of this powerhouse concerto. The whisper-soft envelope of sound woven by the NSO in Gardner’s careful hands showcased the violinist’s pristine tone in the opening passage. His technique was daring and assured, from a growling tone on the G string to crisply tuned double-stops and impeccable trills with staccato melodies woven through them.

Edward Gardner. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Gardner’s defined gestures kept the NSO in perfect step with their soloist, especially silken and rarefied in the dulcet slow movement. Gardner drew out full orchestral power only when the soloist was not playing, allowing the violinist’s athletic tone to shine in the finale, set at a gently rocking tempo. This was especially important when Tjeknavorian was in the stratosphere, the only part of his playing that was just slightly underprojected.

Dramatic pacing marked Gardner’s interpretation of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique as well, which sounded much more thought-out and cohesive than the NSO’s last performance of the work (under Christoph Eschenbach in 2015). The first movement pondered soulfully from its delicate opening, with excellent woodwind solos on the idée fixe melody that runs through the entire piece. Carefully calibrated balances revealed the most important lines in the texture, and insistent tempos galvanized the fast sections.

Both harpists added an elegant air to the introduction of the second movement (“Le Bal”), with enough rubato to sound flexible without losing the excitement of the dance. The English horn and offstage oboe solos in the third movement were impeccably calm and pastoral. Gardner expertly kept this long movement from bogging down, weaving the idée fixe melody through increasingly frantic textures.

For the opium dream in the last two movements, Gardner unleashed the NSO’s full technicolor beauty. The “March to the Scaffold” had an exciting propulsion without becoming disoriented. The implacable progress to the guillotine was marked by blasting brass, founded on the two tubas playing the ophicleide parts.

A similar discipline of tempo made the “Witches’ Sabbath” conclusion exceptionally chilling. The E-flat clarinet solos cackled maniacally, and the death knells rang with solemn fullness, answered by the intensely intoned strains of the “Dies Irae” chant. Gardner did not let down on the intensity through the fugal section, and the strings made otherworldly sounds when they played near the bridge and tapped hollowly with the wood side of their bows. Kennedy Center audience members should be glad to know that Gardner returns to the NSO podium next season.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.; 202-467-4600

2 Responses to “Subbing violinist makes thrilling DC debut with Gardner, National Symphony”

  1. Posted May 12, 2019 at 9:33 am by I was there. Accurate and precise review. BRAVO

    Beautifully written review. Thanks, Tom

  2. Posted Jun 09, 2019 at 6:51 pm by Sarah Diligenti

    Discovering Tjeknavorian was the highlight of an amazing musical evening. His rendition of the Sibelius Concerto–my favorite, ties with Saint-Saens #3–brought tears to my eyes. Such soulful interpretation, truly inspired. I do wish the best to Capucon, but I am glad that his sudden sickness allowed me to discover a new, talented, violinist.

    Thanks for your excellent review.

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