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For a violin soloist, Dan Zhu is good at being unobtrusive. Chalk it up to shyness, or youth, but either way, it’s not the ideal rep to cultivate in a field that rewards showmanship.
So in his National Symphony Orchestra debut last night, Zhu didn’t take many risks with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, a safe piece with proven audience-friendly themes (one of them recycled from Mozart’s earlier Divertimento in D Major), which ballsier performers might try to liven up a bit to upend expectations. Not Zhu. He played much of the concerto on just the top half of his bow, tiptoeing around phrases, holding back while hinting at some big dynamic turn that never comes. The NSO’s accompaniment was also pedestrian, and plodding in the second movement, but one gets the impression Christoph Eschenbach knew Zhu had a subdued presence and dialed back the orchestra more than usual to match him.
Eschenbach would know. Zhu is one of a string of young musicians the NSO director had previously mentored whom he is now bringing to the Kennedy Center, along with Tzimon Barto last week and Lang Lang in November. It’s a nice gesture, and no one would question Eschenbach’s loyalty. But given the polite but not terribly effusive applause Zhu got, the crowd probably would have preferred an outsider with greater ambition.
It’s telling, then, that the solo piece was overshadowed by the orchestral one that succeeded it, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. It’s really a symphony, but Bartók, being all postmodern, didn’t want to call it that. We sometimes forget Hungary’s great musical ambassador spent the last years of his life in the United States in self-imposed exile following his country’s turn to fascism. His “concerto” is a sardonic and sometimes furious wartime piece featuring many back-of-the-stage instruments (the harps lend it a particularly magical quality). And after all that pussyfooting around with Mozart, this heavy and emotional work did wonders to raise the energy level of both the orchestra and audience.
Beethoven’s Grosse (or Great) Fugue in B-flat Major opened the program, apparently chosen with end-of-life compositions as the bookend theme. It’s actually not the original, which was written for a chamber ensemble, but a 20th century orchestral arrangement by Felix Weingartner. The piece can sound precious at times, with sections mimicking one another in staggered phrases, and severe at others, and it can get tiresome. In any case it was apparent Eschenbach was more into it than the orchestra, waving his arms and whipping his head around so violently his jowls shook.
The program, which the NSO will take on a monthlong European tour starting next week, concludes with a different encore each night. Thursday’s was Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. Thursday’s concertgoers also got a show-and-tell of the Kennedy Center’s new organ. J. Reilly Lewis of the Washington Bach Consort gave a demonstration of the pipes, which are indeed, um, very shiny. Honestly, organs just make me think of baseball and vampire movies, so I’ll leave it to others to get excited about this, but props to the Kennedy Center for making the investment.
Zhu and the NSO perform again tonight and Saturday at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $25 – $85. (800) 444-1324.