Sunday, November 22, 2009

NSO - McMillan, Lalo & Mendelssohn - 11/22/09

Conductor: Hugh Wolff
MacMillan: I (A Meditation on Iona) for Strings and Percussion
Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 21 - Joshua Bell
Mendelssohn: Symphony No 3 in A Minor, Op. 56, "Scottish"

This afternoon was the last concert of my immensely enjoyable four-day, final stretch before the holiday season, four drastically different performances expertly driven by an international array of exceptionnally talented gentlemen: the French ( Jean-Louis Thibaudet), the Swedish (Leif Ove Andnes), the Italian (Riccardo Muti), and now last, but by no means least, the American: Joshua Bell. It's like Christmas before Thanksgiving! Today, the National Symphony Orchestra's program featured an unreservedly sunny piece inspired by Spain book-ended by two ostensibly sterner works reflecting the much greyer skies of Scotland, the first one being fairly recent and unknown to me, the third one Mendelssohn's inexplicably little performed "Scottish" symphony. Lalo's delightful Symphonie Espagnole is also a rarity in concert halls, which is another mystery I've never been able to explain either since its attractive melodies are perfectly accessible to dedicated music lovers and less knowledgeable neophytes alike. Go figure. The festivities were expected to unfold under the baton of Hugh Wolff, a former associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra under Rostropovich before he launched into a prestigious international career, and whom we were happy to welcome back on the Kennedy Center concert hall podium.

Ringing bells unmistakably invoking deep-rooted Catholicism opened the concert with their clear sounds before giving way to a powerfully atmospheric tone poem inspired by the same rugged landscape described in Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave". In I (A Meditation on Iona) the profound seriousness of the music, whether contemplative or fragmented, strongly emphasized the historical and religious backgrounds of the island of Iona, but was still most effective at earnestly conveying its stark beauty.
After McMillan's bleak images, Lalo's luminous Symphony Espagnole, which is in fact more of a violin concerto than anything else, quickly cheered everybody up with its wide range of Spanish rhythmical and harmonic elements, among which notably stood out leisurely languorous passages and spontaneously sparkling notes. Originally composed for violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, it openly radiated flamenco-infused lightness and sensuality while keeping the audience constantly engaged with its whimsical intricacies, and Joshua Bell seemed to have as much fun playing it as we did listening to it, easily succeeding in making us completely forget the unbelievably gorgeous fall afternoon we were missing outside.
The prevailing upbeat mood got drastically tempered after the intermission when we went back to Scotland courtesy of Mendelssohn's third symphony. But what a memorable trip it was! Written to be played without a pause, the composition is a seamless journey into the brooding Romantic emotions felt by Mendelssohn when confronted with Scotland's austere scenery, climate and history, which even the more light-hearted second movement cannot fully dissipate. Today, the richly dark melodies came beautifully alive thanks to a NSO obviously engrossed by the task at hand and conducted by a Hugh Wolff who clearly remained on top of things. Best of all, a fading sun was still bathing the late afternoon with a golden glow when we eventually came out, slowly reentering reality.

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