Sunday, September 21, 2008

NSO - Season Opening Ball Concert - 09/20/08

Conductor: Itzhak Perlman
Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla
Strauss Jr.: Wiener Blut, Op. 354
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33 - Alisa Weilerstein
Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat Major, K. 364 - Itzahk Perlman (violin) & Pinchas Zukerman (conductor and viola)
Ravel: Boléro

And going back I am. Last night was finally the night of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Opening Season Ball, and I was really looking forward to hearing Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and a new 26-year old cellist prodigy (or so the program claimed) named Alisa Weilerstein, play a safe, but fairly eclectic, program.
After accidentally mingling with the canapés-eating and wine-drinking tuxedo-and-gown crowd on the terrace of the Kennedy Center, I found a quiet spot from the hoopla to study my guidebook on Berlin. I had refrained from eating or drinking anything and was doing my best to escape notice, but that did not work for very long. Maybe it was the jeans or the sneakers I was wearing (Hey, at least I’m walking and keeping the ozone level down), clean and all, but definitely not blending. I was politely directed back inside by a very nice and sincerely apologetic waitress. No more fresh air or sunshine for me. So I hiked the three floors to my perch and waited for the festivities to begin by reviewing the program. Eventually, once everybody was settled, the musicians streamed in on stage, the ladies’ multi-colored dresses creating lovely bright spots among the more traditional tuxedos. Then Itzhak Perlman appeared, warmly greeted by the almost-full house, and without further ado, the concert began.

The first piece, the overture to Russlan and Ludmilla by Glinka, was light and fun, a nice warm-up exercise for the orchestra, and a nice appetizer for the audience. Although I have a predilection for Russian composers, I don’t know much about Glinka, but since that according to the program he’s no less than the “father of Russian concert music,” I’m glad I finally got to hear one of his pieces.
Next was J. Strauss, Jr. and his Wiener Blut. I’m not sure if the fact that it was composed right after the Vienna Stock Exchange collapsed, which incidentally happened right after the city titled itself “the capital of Europe” with the opening of the great Vienna Exhibition in 1873, is a total coincidence or not, but the popular waltz was, of course, as engaging as ever.
Back to the Russian repertoire, we got to hear Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations featuring Alisa Weilerstein. She proved to be quite an accomplished player, following the intricate variations with grace and precision, and effortlessly winning the crowd’s approval.
After a short intermission, we were back in our seats for speeches by two NSO big wigs and, mercifully, more music. The first piece was the Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart, where the two main instruments were played by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, who also took over baton duty for that one. The dialogue between the two virtuosi was predictably self-assured and playful, sometimes spiritedly talking to each other, sometimes intertwined in perfect harmony. The orchestra was solidly backing them, and the whole ensemble was a true delight to the ears. The audience obviously couldn’t hold its enthusiasm and clapped during both breaks, which was kind of odd coming from a supposedly protocol-aware crowd. Zukerman, however, did not let these trouble-makers distract him and dove right into the following movement, efficiently reconnecting with the music.
Then last, but certainly not least, was Ravel’s famed Boléro, a quintessential crowd-pleaser. Even if its debut was less than auspicious (the critic Edward Robinson called it a “most insolent monstrosity,” and Ravel himself admitted that “it contained no music”), this hypnotic seventeen-minute crescendo and its exuberant closing has rightfully remains one of the most beloved pieces of music ever. Last night was no exception, and the orchestra’s tight interpretation of it concluded the official program with panache.

Of course, a special celebration is never complete without a couple of encores, and yesterday’s both turned out to be dance-related, maybe as preludes to the ball that was to follow. One of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances (the latter eliciting an [ecstatic?] scream from a female audience member) were wonderful little treats and kept the crowd, who even joined in for a few measures during the Brahms’, enthralled. It's good to be back.

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