Conductor: Leonard Slatkin
Elgar: Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61 - Nikolaj Znaider
Holst: The Planets, Op. 32 - The Choral Arts Society of Washington
He's baaaaaaaack!!!!!!!!!!! He may not be the most heralded conductor of our times and his moving on to other opportunities was probably well-timed, but Leonard Slatkin's first return to the National Symphony orchestra's podium since his departure two years ago and his scary heart attack a few months ago was an emotional affair for most classical music lovers in the Washington, DC area, to be sure. So there was definitely a palpable sense of excitement and expectation in the near-capacity concert hall last night. To mark this special occasion, and the first NSO concert of 2010 to boot, the program was appropriately unusual: Elgar's long violin concerto would be performed by young but already much in demand Nikolaj Znaider, and Holst's Planets would take care of the second part of the program, bringing a solid and interesting balance to a decidedly very British evening.
The scheduling of Elgar's rarely heard violin concerto was not just serendipity. Just one century ago this year it was performed for the first time and to enthusiastic acclaim in Queen's Hall, London, by Fritz Kreisler on the very same Guarneri del Gesù violin that Nikolaj Znaider was going to use for us yesterday. And the Danish violinist quickly demonstrated that he positively knew his way around the prestigious instrument by displaying a technique and a maturity way beyond his years. An unabashedly romantic offering to a never fully acknowledged female dedicatee, the concerto proved yesterday that its unusual length could be a true blessing as we were all fully enjoying its wide array of straightforward and intense emotions, occasionally interspersed by short episodes of witticism and darkness. The exquisitely tender cadenza in the final minutes was just the perfect ending to this beautifully expressive piece. Another proof that those English are not that uptight after all!
After Elgar's passionnate declaration of love, the loudly aggressive sounds of Mars, the Bringer of War, the first segment of Holst's seven Planets, sounded particularly harsh. It was, however, immediately contrasted by the lyrical luminosity of Venus, the Bringer of Peace. Going down the firmament, Mercury, the Winged Messenger was full of verve and Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity exulted boundless energy and fun. The unofficial second half featured Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, invested with a Mahlerian thoughtfulness, Uranus, the Magician brought carnival-style humor and Neptune, the Mystic concluded the whole series with an etherally mysterious female chorus. Hidden backstage but nevertheless hauntingly present, their diaphanous voices were slowly fading away as the lights grew dimmer, quietly emphasizing the eternity of the unknown.