Angela Hewitt likes Bach more than most. Back in 2007, she took his Well Tempered Clavier on the road for over a year, a tour she recounted in the Guardian as a kind of grueling endurance test. (It’s a demanding piece, and she tends to perform from memory, as she does this weekend at the Kennedy Center.) Hewitt’s recorded everything he’s ever written for keyboard. Don’t dismiss her repertoire as narrow, though; she’s also pretty good at Handel. And Haydn. But she also sometimes ventures afar, even into non-Baroque waters. She does so more and more now, applying her same obsessive-compulsiveness to more fun composers and to pieces that may not call for the trench warfare approach. So it’s a relief that her Mozart is just as technically good and, as she likes to describe herself, “thorough,” as her Baroque stuff. More importantly, though, it’s also pleasant, and not at all grueling, to hear.
The British-Canadian pianist’s appearance with the National Symphony is her first in a very long time; she last performed here as a kid, sometime in the ’70s. Taking on Mozart’s 22nd Piano Concerto, Hewitt was supremely confident and enjoyable Thursday night. Her fingerwork fluid and seemingly effortless, she had just enough little quirks to make it her own without being precious or self-aggrandizing. Throughout the piece, she played on a certain tension in her phrasing, at times tight and precise, at others looser and heavy: her left hand pounding away seemingly oblivious to the right, which threatened to pull away in a frenzied moment. But just as they seemed about to get lost heading in their own directions, she would bring them back into alignment. Thus Hewitt kept the crowd on its toes, particularly in the final movement, which has the concerto’s best known theme. Her occasional heavy handedness came off as playful rather than plodding.
Balancing out Hewitt with the orchestra was guest conductor David Zinman, perhaps best known locally for his trailblazing stint with the Baltimore Symphony in the ’80s that had a bitter coda—Zinman became harshly critical of his successor, Yuri Temirkanov, and eventually renounced the BSO entirely. But those days are long behind him. Zinman is finishing up his tenure with the Tonhalle-Orchester in Zurich and doing, well, these kinds of gigs. On Thursday he showed up in a Christoph Eschenbach–style black Nehru shirt. Zinman isn’t the first guest conductor to don the NSO director’s trademark outfit; I’m starting to wonder whether it’s a tribute or some kind of odd contractual obligation that whoever fills in when Eschenbach’s away has to borrow his clothes. Whatever was going on, Zimnan kept the NSO humming nicely. Of the two non-Hewitt pieces he led, he seemed to have the most fun with the first, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, even though it was the least fun for the audience. This is the early Schoenberg when he was jocking Mahler and still tonal, not the postwar, no-semblance-of-melody Schoenberg. Nevertheless, the five pieces seem designed to inspire dread more than anything else, with low rumblings from the strings and little yelps from the woodwinds, though they mostly inspired the audience to fidget and cough a lot and drop their keys on the ground and go look for them.
The second was a much more recognizable and well-received Thus Spake Zarathustra by Strauss—-you know, the one with the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those who only know the “sunrise” opening from the movie may be surprised to learn the rest of the piece isn’t as foreboding and bombastic as that first minute, at times actually quite relaxed and pastoral (also surprising given the blustery Henry Rollins posturing of Nietzsche, its inspirational source). Zinman’s tempo and dynamic shifts emphasized both the beauty and the bombast, never more entertainingly than at the end with the solemn hammering of a 15-foot-tall suspended tubular bell (hilariously accompanied by a 10-foot-tall music stand—-OK, so Hewitt can play Mozart’s 22nd from memory, but a percussionist needs sheet music to know to hit a bell once every measure 12 times).
There were a few off moments—a not entirely together start to the Mozart, timing issues from the horns, even Hewitt hit a stray note at one point. But those are kinks that can be worked out in the weekend’s subsequent performances. Overall it was a solid treatment to three very different pieces, different enough that you’ll surely find at least one piece to enjoy, even if that means you may hate the other two.
The program repeats Friday, October 10 and Saturday, October 11 at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $10 – $85.