Friday, February 20, 2009

NSO - Ravel, Prokofiev & Stravinsky - 02/19/09

Conductor: Charles Dutoit
Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 2 in G Minor, Op. 16 - Yuja Wang
Stravinsky: The Firebird, Ballet in Two Scenes

A short trip down the elevator from the Terrace Theater and its promising young artists, the NSO was scheduled to play a one-third French, two-third Russian program under the Canadian baton of renowned conductor Charles Dutoit. The special guest for the evening was the young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who incidentally not so long ago graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music, the prestigious school featured in the Conservatory Project the evening before. Last year I heard her perform Prokofiev's short but lovely piano concerto No 1 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, and yesterday I was totally looking forward to hearing her one year older talent being applied to the considerably meatier concerto No 2.

I can't say I've ever been overly sensitive to Ravel's oeuvre, except for the immediate appeal the Boléro or Tzigane, which even a caveman would immediately fall for. Le tombeau de Couperin is no exception. Originally written for the piano as a tribute to six of his fallen friends right after the Great War, it is both a deeply personal endeavor and his most patriotic musical statement ever. Later, he only kept four of the six movements and modified them to be played by an orchestra, with a particular emphasis on wind instruments. The result is pleasant enough, and there are some really neat ethereal passages for the oboe, but it did not really keep me on the edge of my seat.
Big sweeping sounds, however, were aplenty in Prokofiev's second piano concerto, and tiny Yuja Wang did her very best, which is very good indeed, to stay on top of it. While the pounding got occasionally a bit much for its own sake, she also displayed undeniable grace under fire. With intensity control and delicate nuances, she more than held her own, even when the orchestra unceremoniously covered her playing. All I'm hoping now is that she'll be back next year in the DC area for Prokofiev's piano concerto No 3...
After Prokofiev's unabashed romanticism came Stravinky's colorful Firebird, and the orchestra delivered particularly fine evocations of all the enchanted story's elements, from the fairy-tale atmosphere to the earthy Russian folk tunes, from the good firebird to the bad Kashchei. While knowing the full story obviously enhances the whole experience, and watching the ballet being performed even more so, it was just as easy to sit back, relax and enjoy the full dramatic spectrum of the music itself. Maestro Dutoit assuredly led the musicians into a sparkling performance, and they all made sure that this firebird masterfully took flight and soared to mighty heights.

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