Conductor: James Gaffigan
Auerbach: Requiem for Icarus
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 - Denis Matsuev
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Since Washington has certainly been looking more like Russia than where-North-meets-South lately (Never mind the Mariinsky people scoffing at the cancellation of one of their performances for what they consider a minor climate challenge), it was perfect timing for one of the National Symphony Orchestra's Focus on Russia program that was presenting an appetizing trio of goodies consisting of Auerbach's myth-inspired requiem, Rachmaninoff's ever-popular Piano Concert No 2 and Tchaikovsky's epic Symphony No 4. In this week celebrating our area's return to normalcy, it was a pleasure to welcome such comfort musical pieces that would be performed by brand new partners to the NSO in the persons of young but already much acclaimed American conductor James Gaffigan and Russian pianist Denis Matsuev.
Needless to say, the first work was the more obscure of the evening, but it sure made a strong and lasting impression. Inspired by Icarus' tragic fate and opening with stirring brass notes, the 10-minute requiem did wonder at expressing the winged boy's growing impatience, complete rapture and eventual downfall, all punctuated by lovely violin solos as well as more unusual sounds coming from a theremin or a glass harmonica.
But no matter how satisfying the first part of the concert was, it is probably a safe bet to assume that most people in the audience were there for the two following warhorses of the Russian repertoire that were coming up next. Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto has remained a beloved appearance on concert programs all around the world no doubt because of the endlessly generous beauty of its music, another lush journey into the very heart of Russian Romanticism. Denis Matsuev proved to be a more than worthy interpreter of his fellow countryman by inconspicuously enhancing the natural quality of the score without falling into syrupy maudlinness. The NSO played with plenty of liveliness under the very dynamic baton of its young maestro, but all eyes and ears were rightfully riveted to the piano man.
After a thunderous ovation, he even came back and treated us to his personal arrangement of "Largo al Factotum" from Rossini's Barber of Seville, brilliantly demonstrating that he could handle spirited fun as well.
And the evening went on with one of Tchaikovsky's most instantly recognizable works, his 4th symphony, which got the respectful and energetic treatment it deserved, from the bright opening sounds of the brass to the sweeping élans of the violins, all smartly put to the service of the composer's widely contrasting emotional state of mind. Last night the first movement opened with an implacable Fate-invoking fanfare while the last one ended in an intoxicating life-affirming explosion. Every familiar segments in between - the delicate waltz, the nostalgic oboe solo, the spooky pizzicati - kept on bringing us back to the life journey James Ganiffan and Co were taking us on. It was a take-no-prisoner, thrilling account of the first truly memorable symphony by the Russian composer, and smashingly concluded our very hot Russian evening.