Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Beethoven: Symphony No 6 in F Major, Op. 68, "Pastorale"
Bartok: The Wooden Prince
When the going gets tough, the tough keep going, and that's just what I did yesterday, returning to the Kennedy Center for my second National Symphony Orchestra performance of the season, and incidentally my second Bartok piece in two days. Moreover, as if to make the deal even more enticing, The Wooden Prince and the Pastorale were going to be conducted by the NSO's too rarely seen principal conductor and Bartok's fellow Magyar national, Ivan Fischer. While this incredibly timed double taste of the Hungarian composer's oeuvre a week before my departure for Budapest represents of course serendipity at his best, the opportunity to hear Beethoven's beautifully lyrical homage to Nature would have certainly been enough reason for me to go anyway. After a season opening concert filled with agreeable but rather light-hearted crowd-pleasers, it was time for the NSO to get down to real business and offer two blissfully string-driven, thoroughly appealing works everybody could sink their teeth into. And we did.
But first things first, and before taking us through Beethoven's bucolic landscape, Ivan Fischer led the whole orchestra in a rousing rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, probably to mark the actual beginning of the concert season.
Then the time had finally come to spend a day in the countryside, and it was a very good day indeed. For that symphony, Beethoven had obviously gotten in touch with the dedicated Rousseauist in him and fully used his remarkable pictorialism skills and keen sensitivity to convey nature's own musicality as well as its transcendent quality. Far from merely reproducing easily identifiable sounds, his sixth symphony focuses mostly on the various states of mind inspired by his numerous hours happily spent in natural settings. Therefore, what could have just been a straightforward depictive walk in the woods turns into an involving journey into the composer's psyche. The circumstances of each movement are specified with descriptive titles, and yet the intricately textured music is most striking when it conjures a mood or a feeling. Last night, in the hands of a conductor as precise and engaged as Ivan Fischer, the naturally beautiful score rose to an even higher ground and literally took us beyond the space of the concert hall, all lost in romantic contemplation.
It is romanticism of a different kind that permeated the second offering on the program, Bartok's ballet score for The Wooden Prince. As Fischer himself explained, the story was a simple fairy tale with "a prince, a princess, and a fairy, thank you very much". Beside that cutely dead-pan insight, some surtitles were also projected above the stage to enable the audience to follow the plot, which ended up being quite useful when the music was directly reinforcing a specific action. After the wide-ranging eclecticism of his Concerto for Orchestra the night before, it was very interesting, amusing even, to discover the Romantic Bartok, although his folk roots were never far away whether in the music or in the tale. The full orchestra gamely played along with whole-hearted commitment (the string players sure earned their paycheck yesterday) and their conductor was obviously having a ball bringing to life this tiny but immensely enjoyable part of his cultural heritage. And yes, we all unconditionally rejoiced at the happy ending, even if it also meant the ending of a pretty much flawless concert.