For their first hometown show after getting back from their European tour, the National Symphony Orchestra put on an odd program of three pieces that don’t really go together, despite two of them being by the same composer.
The two symphonies, Prokofiev’s first and fifth, might as well have been written by different people 200 years apart, reflective of the unstable life of the only Russian composer to both flee the Bolshevik Revolution and then come back, and be both celebrated and denounced by the Soviet state. The first, an early pre-exile work (clocking in at 15 minutes, it’s barely a symphony) is a popular, fun and dumb, or depending on your taste, delightful throwback piece to 18th century classicism in which Prokofiev openly admitted to ripping off Haydn as much as he could. The second is his triumphant post-exile comeback, an epic World War II-era patriotic piece designed in part to get back into the good graces of the government (along with his less subtle cantata Hail to Stalin). It worked, at least for a time, before he was eventually and officially accused of “anti-democratic tendencies,” “rejection of the principles of classical music,” and “atonality” (the last two were kind of true, though) and cast aside.
The middle piece, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, features violin soloist Ray Chen and doesn’t really have any connections to the rest of the program other than it features the harp, which could be left on stage for Prokofiev’s fifth, which is convenient because those things are heavy. NSO harpist Adriana Horne gets second billing to Chen, a rare thing given that “let’s go hear this killer harp solo!” isn’t normally a big draw. I don’t know too much about the instrument—I think of harps primarily as wedding ornaments—but a friend who plays it tells me harpists tend to be either quiet and unassuming or total divas. I wouldn’t speculate as to where Horne falls along that spectrum, but she did a fine job, except for the fact that she was hard to hear over the guy in row Z who coughed straight through the entire fifth symphony.
Chen was also a solid performer, if not yet a huge draw either, judging by the concert hall’s empty seats. The Taiwanese-Australian violinist is a rising star in the classical world, well known on the competition circuit and online (for his blogging and for maybe dating Sarah Chang), but not quite a household name. Like many NSO soloists, he has a personal connection to music director Christoph Eschenbach, with whom he recorded a Mozart album two years ago. He’s clearly got a bright future ahead of him; it doesn’t hurt that he’s young and has the chiseled look of an Armani model, which he actually is. The Scottish Fantasy is a less expected solo piece for a violinist compared to Bruch’s massively more popular Concerto in G minor, but it’s pretty if a little ominous, with a dramatic arpeggio finale. Chen isn’t a flashy soloist but plays confidently and mostly cleanly, aside from a couple squeaks, with a wide, heavy vibrato.
The orchestra, too, played well for both Prokofiev symphonies; they seem to be on a high from their tour, as they appeared more boisterous, precise, and better coordinated than before they left. Eschenbach, too, was in a playful mood, pantomiming a marionette as he conducted the first symphony. The fifth probably holds more personal significance to Eschenbach, given its connection to the war that left him an orphan (Eschenbach’s father was an anti-Nazi musicologist who was conscripted into a German penal battalion and killed on the eastern front). Here the orchestra was especially clean for such a messy piece. The themes in this symphony veer from pastoral bliss, foreboding, despair, to a mechanized frenzy; keys and time signatures switch up unexpectedly, bringing back the Russian emotions he eschewed in his first. It’s a unique, truly Soviet symphony, ironic since the Soviet censors preferred his earlier, more classical stuff.
Those who went to Thursday’s performance got a bonus, a one night only organ recital by Todd Fickley, the sixth part of an ongoing project of his to play all of Bach’s organ works. Which is a lot, and with all the Herr Jesus and Herr Gotts after a full NSO concert, it was a little much. But everyone who went to Thursday’s performance missed Donald Trump talking about his penis at the GOP debate, so consider that a win.
The program continues Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $15 – $99.