New music, in the classical sense, doesn’t have any particular defining characteristic other than being, well, new, so it’s unfortunate that it has a reputation for inaccessibility. Some of it can be fairly abstract and atonal, but plenty of living composers make stuff that is immediately enjoyable, easy to follow if not quite sonata form, some of it downright old-fashioned. Composer Tobias Picker is a poster child for accessible new music, program music in particular: music that tells a story or is otherwise inspired by some non-musical idea. He’s written operas based on books by Roald Dahl (Fantastic Mr. Fox), Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy), even Stephen King (Dolores Clairborne). What’s remarkable is that he pulls it off even when the story is a secret to everyone but him, which is the case of his newest work, Opera Without Words.
The piece, which premieres with this week’s National Symphony Orchestra program, was commissioned by the NSO at the behest of music director Christoph Eschenbach, who’s a fan and recorded an album of Picker’s music with the Houston Symphony. It was originally supposed to be a concerto, but Picker, whose work skews heavily (though not exclusively) to opera, dreamed up writing a non-vocal opera, sans libretto, instead. Instruments take up lines in succession as singers would an aria or duet, the full orchestra standing in for the chorus.
This isn’t really that new an idea: there are plenty of instrumental arrangements of famous operas; lots of orchestras perform non-staged operas in part or whole; and instruments-as-singers is a concept as old as instrumental music itself. Even the name is unoriginal: this week’s soloist, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, released a whole album of opera instrumentations, titled, you guessed it, Opera Without Words. And the gimmick here—that Picker really does have a story in mind, he just won’t tell you what it is—is too cute by half. All we know is it involves gladiators. (Really. Wasn’t that a punchline in Airplane?) But the result is pleasantly lyrical, dramatic, and follows a story arc of some sort that we can only imagine involves Roman slaves bashing each other with blunt objects.
The second part of the program showcases Thibaudet, a prodigiously talented, energetic French pianist. Given his repertoire, it would make more sense to pair the Picker piece with one of Thibaudet’s opera arrangements, but instead he performs Liszt, keeping with the program music theme. Liszt was, of course, the O.G. idol, a 19th century Bieber and Zayn rolled into one. But he was also a virtuoso soloist-composer who championed “progressive” works inspired by literature and unencumbered by traditional structures—most explicitly in his thematic symphonic poems like Hamlet or Prometheus, less obviously in the piece Thibaudet tackles, his second piano concerto.
Thibaudet’s vigorous playing style borders on excessive force; he looks happiest when he’s leaning back and banging away at the keyboard like Jerry Lee Lewis. But he’s also remarkably precise and articulate: unlike more impressionistic, soft-hand pianists like Andras Schiff, Thibaudet stabs out each key so every note is clearly audible. Liszt’s concerto is a good piece for Thibaudet, with lots of showy cadenzas and a high-energy climax that left Thursday’s Kennedy Center crowd slack-jawed.
However the second half of the program contrasted too well with the first: a Brahms showcase meant to offer the conservative counterpoint to Liszt’s progressivism, music-for-music’s-sake instead of thematic music, but which mostly contrasted by being low energy. This was achieved, above all, by Eschenbach’s plodding conducting of the Third Symphony, which started with slowing the allegro to a crawl. The rest of the symphony simply never recovered from that, and the orchestra sounded sluggish. A trio of short, sprightly Hungarian Dances (which, Brahms’ critics noted, weren’t traditionally Hungarian but rather Romani, not that he knew the difference) served mostly to wake everyone up again before heading home.
This week’s program is the NSO’s first since announcing its upcoming season. The announcement will certainly be overshadowed by news of the Kennedy Center naming Q-Tip as its first-ever artistic director of hip-hop culture. Which is just as well, because there isn’t a whole lot else to see. Aside from Elgar’s Falstaff and a couple new works by Mason Bates and Christopher Rouse, we’ll mostly get a bunch of perennial standards (Bach, Handel, Brahms, Tchaikovsky) played by perennial visitors (Lang Lang, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell). Which is illustrative of the generally conservative programming of the Kennedy Center as a whole, which the much hyped new hip-hop mandate will not be immune to. Given the Center’s predilection for past-their-prime celebrities, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a Fetty Wap residency, at least not for another 20 years.
The program repeats Friday at 11:30 am and Saturday at 8:00 pm. $15 – $89. At the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW.