The Washington Post
By Anne Midgette, Staff Writer
November 14, 2008
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Beyond Brooklyn: An NSO Debut

In New York, the young conductor Michael Christie was making waves as music director of the scrappy Brooklyn Philharmonic. Then he was brought down a peg when his debut this past March with the New York Philharmonic, as a last-minute replacement for Riccardo Muti, was not well received. That's the buzz. But little of this -- or any -- buzz appeared to have reached Washington, at least the part of Washington that buys tickets to the National Symphony Orchestra. Last night's concert, Christie's NSO debut, was relatively sparsely attended.

Part of the problem, no doubt, was the program, which presented a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty picture to potential audience members. You could say it was an all-20th-century program, which is the equivalent of condemning it to box office death. Or you could say it included two well-known and well-liked classics: Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade After Plato's 'Symposium' " -- actually a violin concerto, with Jennifer Koh as soloist -- and Igor Stravinsky's "Pétrouchka," one of the best-loved ballets in the repertory.

The program was, indeed, thoughtfully balanced, in that the Bernstein, big and romantic in temperament, was poised between two Stravinsky pendants, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments at the start and "Pétrouchka," in its 1947 version, at the end. The difference between them is the difference between lush strings and angular brass; this was underlined by the juxtaposition of the opening Symphonies -- quirky, lovely and ungainly -- without any strings at all, followed by the string-focused "Serenade."

Each of the first two works seemed intimate by contrast with "Pétrouchka" (the NSO decided to use the spelling from the first published score), which brought the whole orchestra onstage -- somewhat misleadingly, since Stravinsky's excuse for rewriting his 1911 work was that it was scored for a smaller orchestra. In fact, he rewrote it because the original was not protected by copyright; despite its tremendous popularity, it was not making him any money.

There was a slight rawness to the program; particularly in the opening Symphonies, the seams were still exposed. This was partly because Christie is the opposite of a micromanager: He gives the music its head. His sensibility may be American -- it was a program that made one think of Leonard Slatkin -- but he is without the extravagant Bernsteinian gestures that have become de rigueur for so many conductors. If anything, he is understated: He has a clear beat, but he sometimes seems only to be beating time, leaving entrances, in places, to the discretion of the musicians.

This led, in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, to passages in which the musicians sounded adrift; the piece too often came off as a collection of notes that were not quite sure how they fit together. But when everyone came together, Christie's approach resulted in vibrant, energetic playing: The first section of "Pétrouchka," in particular, was taut and crisp and exuberantly easy, conveying the amused delight of a score that shows a master returning to familiar ground.

The Bernstein may have been a nod to the wave of Bernsteiniana that has broken over the late composer's 90th year, not least with a big festival this fall in New York. It was certainly an appealing reading of a work I have usually heard as uneven. Bernstein was palpably eager to be thought of as an intellectual, and often straitjacketed himself in contemporary (and thorny) musical idioms to show that he could handle them, when in fact his natural bent was for big streams of melody. His better works, pretty much across the board, are the ones in which those streams burst through, and the "Serenade" is one of them. Attempting to interpret Plato, he ends up turning the Symposium into a musical, with characters, action and even a dramatic program lest anyone miss the point.

Koh did a fine job as the leading lady, opening with a full-throated singing line on her violin, but sometimes lapsing into guttural phrases that sounded nearly spoken, as if the instrument were on the brink of breaking into words. Her nuanced and likable performance was just what was needed to bring this piece off.

This being a musical, there are many numbers: a duet with principal cellist David Hardy; the rapid "Eryximachus" section, a fugue with the character of a patter song; the lilt of the "Aristophanes" section. The "Agathon" section was to me the least focused: Bernstein's emotional excesses do not appear to be the main interest of this levelheaded young conductor.

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