Conductor: Xian Zhang
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No 2 in G Minor, Op. 63
Stravinsky: Le chant du rossignol, Symphonic Poem for Orchestra
Bartok: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19
I thought that this day would never come, but yesterday was my last National Symphony Orchestra concert as a Washingtonian (Sniff!) and I have to say that seeing the usual familiar faces on the stage and in the audience suddenly took a whole other dimension. The orchestra’s brand new music director, Christoph Eschenbach, was already off guest-conducting somewhere else in the world and the baton was going to be held by Xian Zhang, whose name did not ring a bell but who turned out to be female, Chinese and has apparently been busy making a name for herself with more and more prestigious assignments around the globe. Coincidence or not, the last two pieces on the program, by Stravinsky and Bartok, featured Chinese themes to some degree, and the other two were Debussy’s ethereal Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun and Prokofiev’s multi-faceted Violin Concerto No 2, which, to my endless delight, would be performed by always reliable Gil Shaham.
Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun is a fine way to get a concert started, and yesterday was no expectation. Even if this performance was not as deliciously atmospheric as the New York Philharmonic last month, it certainly held its own. Hearing the faun’s gentle musings come to life is too much of a treat to be nit-picking and last night the magic beautifully operated again.
Showing up looking like a young, jovial, energetic business man in his suit and tie, Gil Shaham walked right up on stage and… went right down to business, immediately diving into the opening on Prokofiev’s second concerto with grace and aplomb. Written as the composer was moving from Paris to Madrid by way of Voronezh and Baku, it sounds nevertheless more conventional than some of the enfant terrible's bolder works. Constantly moving his body to the music and spontaneously engaging in private moments with conductor and musicians, Gil Shaham seemed completely at ease negotiating the still challenging score. The highlight of his performance was a particularly remarkable second movement, during which he quickly switched gears between the delicate opening and ending and the whimsical middle section. After holding back during the Debussy, Xian Zhang took this opportunity to demonstrate what a small but resilient ball of energy she could be, keeping a tight control over all of her charges.
The more the concert went on, the more she seemed to get into her element and Stravinsky’s wild plays on rhythms and harmonies got a particularly vivid treatment on her watch. Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story, Le chant du rossignol (“The song of the Nightingale”) is a symphonic poem that makes the most of its exotic setting and characters, powerfully emphasizing all the plot's twists and turns. The story is pleasant enough to easily lend itself to a musical treatment (It is about a Chinese emperor and nightingale, after all) and gives the musicians plenty of material to play with.
Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin, a macabre tale of three tramps and a wealthy Chinese, gets even more into strong, overlapping and intricate sounds, which can easily become overwhelming if the listener is not in the right frame of mind. But it can also be a rewarding experience for anybody sensitive to resoundingly expressive music, and our guest conductor managed to vivaciously guide the musicians into a unabashedly dynamic version of it, keeping the right balance between energy and precision all the way to a rousing conclusion. Thank you, NSO, for a memorable send off! I shall return.