You know when your friends say “I like classical music but I just can’t get into contemporary classical”? And you, the enlightened music fan, get to scoff at them and feel smug? Because they treat orchestral music like a museum artifact, content to hear the same old Beethoven symphonies over and over, while you’re keeping the flame alive because you own a Philip Glass CD? Well, when they say that, they’re thinking of the kind of stuff the NSO is playing this week. And sometimes, your friends are right.
That’s not to say there’s anything aurally painful about Wolfgang Rihm’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” (there is no No. 1, it’s that avant-garde), an NSO co-commission making its U.S. debut at the Kennedy Center this week. It’s got some pleasant passages and occasional moments of drama, but there’s a lot of boring stuff in between; one friend of mine, a first-time NSO attendee, admitted she dozed off for a good chunk of it.
Rihm is arguably the world’s most prolific living composer who’s churned out countless instrumental, vocal and dramatic works, and is associated with the (depending who you ask) Neo-Romantic or “New Simplicity” movements. In theory, this means his music does away with the structural constraints that typified postwar German music in favor of a more free-form, expressive style that emphasizes fluidity and spontaneity, unhampered by traditional tonality and phrasing, linear trajectories, or discernable melodies. It’s about as far as you can get from the structured, repetitive patterns of minimalism that Americans tend to take as our standard reference point for new music. In practice, this means a Rihm piece sounds like someone making shit up as he goes along, in no particular hurry.
So there are a lot of wafting notes and phrases seemingly unconnected to each other, with occasional bangs and booms, and lots of space between them. Holding it all together is pianist/novelist/bodybuilder Tzimon Barto, one of the many musicians Christoph Eschenbach took under his wing before becoming NSO director and has brought to the Kennedy Center since. Rihm actually wrote the piece for Barto, citing Barto’s skill in playing extremely soft dynamics. And he is, indeed, quite skilled in that regard. Which is funny because Barto looks like Terry Bradshaw when he had hair, barrel chested and towering over Eschenbach even on his podium. Yet he delicately tiptoes around Rihm’s—-well, can’t call them melodies, but, uh, ideas, with such grace, it’s something to behold.
There’s much less to behold from the orchestra; aside from some violin harmonics and stray woodwind lines, the piece calls for a lot of sitting still. Much better, and more entertaining, were the pieces that bookend the Rihm concerto: a short, boisterous crowd-pleaser, Dvořák’s “Carnival Overture,” particularly its tightly syncopated strings-and-cymbals finale, and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”
Berlioz’s symphony occupied the most space in the program and was the high point, playing to the orchestra’s strengths, and conducted with aplomb by Eschenbach. Above all, it appeared to be genuinely enjoyable to play, with the second movement’s waltz eliciting smiles in the orchestra and audience alike. (This week’s program also serves as a live audition for one candidate for the associate concertmaster chair recently vacated by Elisabeth Adkins.) There are some bizarre elements in the piece, which supposedly illustrate—-as an early example of program music—-an opium hallucination and a Satanic orgy, using tubas, double timpani, and col legno bowing (when the violinists turn their bows upside down and play with the stick rather than the hair). The inclusion of Berlioz’s symphony—-which, for all its weirdness, became a standard-setter for Romanticism—-next to Rihm’s work of neo-Romanticism seems to convey the message that just because something sounds crazy on first listen doesn’t mean it won’t someday become a beloved classic. Anything’s possible I guess, but I wouldn’t put my money on this concerto.
The program repeats Saturday, January 17 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. 2700 F St. NW. $10-$85.