Conductor: Hans Graf
Lutoslawski: Musique funèbre
Chopin: Piano Concerto No 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 – Yuja Wang
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 3 in D Major, Op. 29, “Polish”
With business or pleasure regularly getting in the way, I was ready to give up on making it back to DC for a long weekend before next year. Then a couple of weeks ago, this weekend suddenly appeared free of any kind of commitments. A glance at the Polish-centric program that the National Symphony Orchestra would be playing on those dates pretty much sealed the deal. I quickly made plans for three full days of meeting up with friends to eat and drink at favorite spots, peruse exhibits of Lichtenstein and Weiwei, explore botanical gardens and outdoors markets, keep fit with yoga and runs on the Mall. Even better, it all started on Friday evening with the above-mentioned concert and the added bonus of a (real!) Champagne-soaked pre-concert get-together with my old NSO buddies Pat and Jennifer.
Washington, DC's premier orchestra may not be the most famous or the most remarkable orchestra in the US, let alone the world, but they were my home team for so many years that seeing some of those familiar faces again always feels like paying a visit to some beloved relatives. And there they were again on the stage of the Kennedy Center’s concert hall, headed by ever-classy Nurit Bar-Josef and, for this week, conducted by visiting maestro Hans Graf.
The title of the first piece, Musique funèbre, kind of put a temporary damper on our festive spirits at first, but once the music started flowing, we effortlessly eased into its serene mood. Dedicated to the memory of Bela Bartok and inspired by the opening fugue of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Lutoslawski’s composition is a beautiful arch-shaped feast for strings, and we thoroughly enjoyed its impeccably harmonious balance.
Having an opportunity to hear the petite but fiercely talented Ms. Wang is never to be missed, so I was particularly happy to see her name on the NSO’s program. After assertively walking through the stage in a simple but eye-popping purple gown, she just as assertively handled Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1. Although I cannot say I like this concerto as much as his solo works – The then 20-year old composer was obviously a little clueless about what to do with an orchestra – I was still very much taken by its innocence and liveliness. A technical wizard behind an impassive face, Yuja Wang is going to have to dig deeper into the music she plays to find the soul of it, but she seemed on the right track with the delicate Romanze, which came out so exquisitely that one could feel the whole audience collectively holding their breath.
Tchaikovsky’s third symphony is not one of his strongest works, but its pleasant melodies went down nicely, even when they extended their welcome a bit. The orchestra played well all night, but it was really in this rendition of the Polish that one could notice the fruitful relationship the musicians had unanimously established with Hans Graf. The down-to-earth Austrian conductor certainly seemed to get exactly what he wanted without making a big fuss about it. And that was very good indeed.