National Symphony achieves liftoff with “The Planets” at Wolf Trap

Sat Jul 08, 2023 at 1:55 pm
By Alex Baker

Nicholas Hersh conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in Gustav Holst’s The Planets Friday night at Wolf Trap.

The National Symphony Orchestra’s summer season at Wolf Trap opened Friday night with a program featuring Gustav Holst’s The Planets and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, under the baton of Nicholas Hersh.

Holst’s enduring suite of tone poems on the solar system, completed in 1917, drew am audience that packed the house and lawn; perhaps the promise of simultaneous high definition views of the planets aided the box office. While the NSO’s summer season leans heavily towards film music and back-up duties for rock and pop acts, this was a great example of an offering with broad appeal that also served as a worthy showcase for the orchestra.

Hersh effectively captured each planet’s individual character, from the mischievous scherzo of “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” and stately pomp of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.” to the raucous, infernal march of “Uranus, the Magician” and limpid “Neptune, the Mystic.” The last, featuring women’s voices from The Washington Chorus, provided an ethereal and haunting coda. 

The NSO sections made much of The Planets’ showpiece opportunities, from brawny strings in “Mars, the Bringer of War,” to the dreamy flutes in “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” and nimble brass in “Mars” and “Jupiter.” “Venus” also featured lovely violin solos from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Joseph.

The accompanying celestial film, originally commissioned by the Houston Symphony, drew on photographs, video, and computer animations spanning a half century of observation, and proved a meditative addition to the music.

The first half featured 21-year old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, who has made Rachmaninoff a signature of his impressive young career. Malofeev brought a deft touch and sense of transparency to the familiar concerto, bringing out unexpected voices in the piano writing and an appealing sense of lightness throughout.

Yet while there were many individual moments to appreciate, too often the performance failed to coalesce into a convincing whole. In the Allegro moderato, Hersh’s plodding tempo in the orchestral passages drained forward momentum and deprived the final bars of their sense of build-up and release.

Resisting the temptation to impose too much sentiment in this emotive work is laudable, but Malofeev’s distant affect in the opening of the Adagio sostenuto felt inert. (The hordes of latecomers arriving didn’t help a sense of intimacy.) Exquisite flute and clarinet solos in the orchestra did more to communicate the Adagio’s themes, followed by a vigorous B section and exciting cadenza which found Malofeev fully engaged.

Malofeev proceeded to gleefully tackle the demands of the final movement, but general issues remained. Dragging tempos continued to crop up in the orchestra and connections between the movement’s contrasting sections lacked the direction and energy necessary to maintain excitement across the whole. Thankfully all of the elements ultimately came together for the bravura closing bars, but one was left wishing that more of that cohesion had been delivered throughout the piece.

For an encore, Malofeev offered the Adagio theme from the Grand Pas de Deux of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, in a filigreed arrangement by the pianist Mikhail Pletnev. Malofeev’s silken touch was on display here and sent the audience off to intermission humming its signature descending scale.

The National Symphony Orchestra plays music from “The Return of the Jedi” 8 p.m. Saturday at Wolf Trap.

One Response to “National Symphony achieves liftoff with “The Planets” at Wolf Trap”

  1. Posted Jul 23, 2023 at 4:56 pm by J

    Thank you for your review. I was quite moved that night by Malofeev’s performance. Sitting on the lawn, the acoustics were not ideal, of course, but I greatly prefer Rachmaninoff to Holst, and imagine my surprise when I realized I had not seen the Concerto No. 2 on the program.

    It was a warm, humid night, and I loved to see these people working hard to create such lovely music. To that end, I really enjoyed Malofeev’s encore – he played with such greater freedom and delight, that I couldn’t help but be carried with his passion, too. I did not recognize the piece, though. So I was happy to find your review.

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