Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Britten: Matinées musicales after Rossini
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 5 in G Major, Op. 55
Yuja Wang: Piano
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
When the prospect of a whole month full of holiday music relentlessly invading New York City’s concert halls, stores and homes became too much to bear, I figured that I should escape to greener pastures where performances would not include anything Christmassy. That’s why last weekend I headed down to my old digs of Washington, D.C. to hear the National Symphony Orchestra with Yuja Wang playing Prokofiev at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for Mozart’s Requiem at the Strathmore Music Center on Sunday afternoon. Because why settle for just one musical trip down memory lane when I could go for two?
Because there's never a dull moment in our nation's capital, on Saturday I got to marvel at the newly developed Wharf on the waterfront in the morning before enjoying two outstanding exhibits (Ai Weiwei’s “Traces” at the Hirschhorn Museum and “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Paintings” at the National Gallery of Art) in the afternoon. And then my friend Jennifer and I survived a memorably sub-par dinner that even dedicated drinking would not improve at the fancy, long-established Italian restaurant La Perla (You know you’re in trouble when you’re greeted with supermarket white bread and butter) early evening.
But music famously heals all wounds, and after perfect little pick-me-ups at Campono and an invigorating walk around the Kennedy Center’s rooftop, we expectantly took our seats in the packed concert hall. The particularly exciting program presented works that Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote when they lived outside their native countries between the two world wars. And the icing on the cake came in the form of the prodigious pianist Yuja Wang. Last, but not least, the red carpet that was covering the center’s hallways was a heart-warmingly welcoming touch, even if in all likelihood it had been unrolled for the up-coming Kennedy Center Honors, and not for my long-overdue visit to D.C.
“Matinées musicales” is a rarely performed adaptation of Gioachino Rossini’s themes by Benjamin Britten, and the final result that opened the concert on Saturday night still sounded definitely more Italian than English. One explanation for the boundless energy and vivid colors may have been the unmistakable Italian roots of the NSO’s new music director, who was also the host and conductor for the evening, Gianandrea Noseda, or just Britten not daring to mess too much with a good thing. In any case, it was a charming curiosity.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5, which happens to be his last one, is a funny little piece that comes with more challenges and rewards that its conciseness and playfulness may originally let on, but I had no doubt that Miss Wang would handle it with her signature flair and aplomb, not the least because about a decade ago, even as a much less experienced musician she immediately impressed me with her head-on mastering of the Russian composer’s first and second piano concertos.
And sure enough, on Saturday night she clearly demonstrated that she had not lost her apparently seamless connection to Prokofiev and his œuvre, never mind the amount of mercilessly daunting obstacles she was facing again. Fearlessly inventive and constantly surprising, the concerto was brilliantly performed, its delicately lyrical middle movement beautifully standing out among the other four rambunctiously virtuosic, occasionally downright grotesque, ones.
Never one to be stingy about extending the party, Wang treated the ecstatic audience to two encores, starting with a fierce and exhilarating reading of the Horowitz Variations based Bizet’s Carmen before expertly quieting things down with an unidentified by lovely work.
After intermission, we were in for more Russian fare with Rachmaninoff’s irresistible Symphonic Dances, which unfolded in all their vigorously rhythmical splendor. The orchestra responded exceptionally well to maestro Noseda’s enthusiastic conducting and all of the orchestral suite’s various distinct elements, from the infectious three-note motif to the ever-shifting harmonies to the saxophone solo to the ecclesiastic chants, came effortlessly together to create a glorious musical experience. It was Rachmaninoff’s last composition, but let’s face it, there were not many places to go to after that. So that was fittingly our last piece of the evening as well.