Friday, June 26, 2009

NSO - Delius & R. Strauss - 06/23/09

Conductor: Andreas Delfs
Delius: The Walk to the Paradise Garden
R. Strauss: "Four Last Songs" (Spring, September, Going to Sleep, At Sunset) - Karita Mattila
R. Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra

Yesterday evening yet another subscription season bit the dust, this one being the National Symphony Orchestra's, which lately not only have had to deal with the jet-lag from their just-wrapped Chinese-Korean tour, but with last-minute artist and program changes as well. Luckily, the biggest draw of the evening, celebrated soprano Karita Mattila was still on, but her répertoire had switched from Richard Strauss' little-known "Three Hymns" to his much more popular "Four Last Songs". Her fellow Finnish conductor Mikko Franck had lived up to his reputation for unpredictability (we'll have to wait and see to check out his just as much famed brilliance) and had bailed out a mere few days before to be replaced by less exciting but more reliable Andreas Delfs. Oh well, there's no way I was going to miss bidding a temporary farewell to our NSO, celebrated with no less than Strauss' impressive Also Sprach Zarathustra, and decided that che sera sera.

The first piece of the concert had undergone, what else, a last-minute change, but "The Walk to the Paradise Garden" from Frederick Delius' A Village Romeo and Juliet was a lovely way to start the evening, delectably wallowing in the lush sounds of late romanticism. The experience was not nearly as interesting as Einojuhani Rautavaara's Manhattan Transfer would have been in Franck's hands, but maestro Delfs comfortably led the orchestra in a solid, if not particularly transcendental, performance.
Next, the excitement went up a notch as Karita Mattila brought her statuesque presence to the stage. After witnessing her beautifully touching Tatyana in Eugene Onegin at the Met earlier this year, which had to be a real tour de force for somebody with such strong physicality, I was very much looking forward to hearing her tackle Strauss. And the verdict is: mostly very good, but uneven. She has a big, well-nuanced voice and knows how to use it, but last night it occasionally lacked clarity and expressiveness. On top of it, the orchestra sounded at times way too loud for their own good and prevented the frustrated audience from hearing the singing. However, when everything came together, there were definitely arresting moments to savor such as her soaringly lyrical dialog with the NSO's readily dependable concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef in Going to Sleep.
Last, but not least, the obligatory big-bang send-off piece was Strauss' most famous work, "freely based", as he himself put it, on Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra. The crowd-pleasing first few minutes and the less familiar remaining half hour were big-bangey enough, thank you very much, but not much else. Not that the orchestra sounded bad, but the very animated conductor did not quite succeed in bringing out the remarkable characteristics of the various sections making up this grand tone poem, and for the most part served a straightforward read-through, which did not always perfectly gel. In all fairness, it was still an overall grippingly resounding conclusion to what has turned out to be, all things considered, a pretty good season. Onward and forward!

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