Conductor: Vladimir Ashkenazy
Walton: Portsmouth Point Overture
Walton: Cello Concerto – Steven Isserlis
Shostakovich: Symphony No 10 in E Minor, Op. 93
With summer fast approaching, I had been thinking that it was high time to take a trip down memory lane (and the New Jersey Turnpike, and the I-95) and pay my former home of Washington, DC another visit before the music season ended and the infamous seasonal heat made its appearance. I did not win the race against high temperatures and even higher humidity, but I did get to breathlessly catch up with old friends, leisurely cruise some museums and happily attend a wonderful concert by the National Symphony Orchestra with very special guests: Steven Isserlis on the cello, Vladimir Ashkenazy on the podium and my NSO buddy Pat next to me in the audience. So what was a little sticky sweat thrown in the mix?
Back at the Kennedy Center, which more than any other place has taken of my musical education live, the NSO concert started nice and easy with Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture, a short and vivid description of the rowdy British harbor.
After the rambunctious port and its even more rambunctious activities, Walton’s absolutely exquisite love letter composed in Italy for his much younger Argentine wife sounded absolutely divine in the virtuosic hands of Steven Isserlis. Throughout the whole concerto, the work’s serene beauty discreetly glowed with a luminous, steady light. The middle movement temporarily perked things up, but the sweet melodies and subtle lyricism surrounding it kept the audience in a dreamy state all the way to the soft whisper of an ending.
The honeymoon, however, was quickly over after the intermission with the rude awakening that is Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10, abruptly going from the dolce vita enjoyed on the Mediterranean island of Ischia to the turmoil of Stalinist Russia. Despite an understated opening and some quiet passages, this piece is mostly famous for its power and loudness, and it sure rose in all its no holds barred glory last Friday night. Finally able to express himself after all those totalitarian years, the Russian composer was obviously ready to vent and did not hold back. Luckily for us, maestro Ashkenazy kept a firm grasp on the fired up orchestra, which delivered a robust and unified performance. I have to say that I have witnessed many unusual scenes in concert halls along the years, but watching the woman two seats down from me repeatedly nod off during Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 was definitely one of the most unexpected and inexplicable ones. There's really never a dull moment in classical music performances...