- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2006

With guest conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos at the helm, the National Symphony Orchestra presented an unusual program Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, joining one of Beethoven’s most beloved symphonies with a pair of well-known 20th-century Russian works, including Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, featuring Lithuanian-born violinist Julian Rachlin as soloist.

The orchestra opened the concert’s first half, somewhat curiously, with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, subtitled the “Pastoral” symphony. The 6th is a light, sunny work, uncharacteristic of this highly serious master.

One usually opens a concert with a short piece like a sprightly overture to get the audience away from the workday and into a concert mood, so hitting them with a half-hour symphony right off the bat is a little unorthodox. Breaking the pattern now and then can be a good thing, but in this case the NSO approached the work lethargically at best and indifferently at worst, at least in the initial two movements.

Fortunately, the performance brightened in the final three movements, which are linked into an extended tone poem punctuated by marvelously effective “thunderstorm” music. While the symphony’s many solo miniatures were nicely executed by the principals, odd, ragged bits emerged from the horn section when least expected.

The program’s second half turned out much better. The 30-something Mr. Rachlin has become increasingly popular on the concert circuit of late, and his deft and elegant handling of a tricky piece like the Prokofiev is probably one of the reasons why. What astonishes about Mr. Rachlin’s playing is his sheer purity of tone, even in this work’s mildly caustic finale. One rarely expects a bel canto reading of a 20th-century lion like Prokofiev, but that’s exactly what Thursday’s audience got. The effect was transformative, a totally new way of looking at a long-established work.

The orchestra, for its part, proved an adept collective accompanist, applying bright splashes of instrumental color at just the right time, while carrying on a satisfying dialogue with the soloist.

Likewise, the NSO was primed and ready to go for its grand finale, the 1919 version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” one of those pieces that’s so popular that it appears on symphony programs year after year without wearing out its welcome. Under Maestro Fruhbeck de Burgos, the NSO consistently produced a warm, late-Romantic tone, fitting for this composer’s last look back at his compositional heritage — before he embarked on his controversial “Rite of Spring.”

While the tempo of the Firebird’s Dance seemed a bit on the slow side, the orchestra’s performance of the remaining dances in the suite was dense and lush in the work’s quieter moments and deliciously thunderous at its dramatic peaks. Particularly effective were the ensemble’s bombastic attacks in the violent and vigorous Infernal Dance, which emphasized the work’s bass drum artillery shots a bit more than is customary. It certainly caught the attention and roused the enthusiasm of the many young people in Thursday’s audience who’d been tempted to nod off during the Beethoven.

If Mr. Fruhbeck de Burgos and the NSO can infuse some life into the “Pastoral” symphony in tonight’s performance, this, along with Mr. Rachlin’s understated virtuosity and a ripping good “Firebird Suite,” should make tonight’s reprise of this program an enjoyable evening, even for the most finicky concertgoer.

**1/2

WHAT: National Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Julian Rachlin conducted by Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos performing works by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

WHEN: Tonight at 8 p.m.

TICKETS: $20 to $79

PHONE: 800/444-1324 or 202/467-4600

WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org

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