- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

Some modernist and postmodernist writers and artists take delight in deriding modern symphony orchestras as “museums” for outdated music. At times, this harsh judgment seems fair, after hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, say, for the 50th time in concert, as opposed to encountering a new work by a living composer.

However, there are times when one can delight in this orchestra-as-museum metaphor. One of those times happened Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall when the National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, unveiled its first-ever performance of Edvard Grieg’s complete Incidental Music to Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.” Initially created in 1867 as a verse play intended only for reading, Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” proved popular enough for the playwright to shape it into something that could be staged, and he asked Grieg to compose some incidental music for the stage version.

Grieg answered the call, although the two never saw eye to eye on the music and Grieg was never quite happy with his entire score.

By the late 1980s, a relatively complete performing version of Grieg’s original score was completed, with a narrative part adapted by American actor John de Lancie - better known to TV viewers as the nefarious “Q” on “Star Trek: Next Generation” and Frank Simmons on “Stargate SG-1.” A shorter version of this one, complete with surtitles, was finished in the late 1990s. Mr. Ashkenazy, again with Mr. de Lancie as narrator, brought this version to the Kennedy Center this week. They were joined by baritone Sergei Leiferkus as Peer; by Twyla Robinson, Marnie Mosiman, Adalsteinn Einarsson, Brendan M. Curran, Melissa L. Coombs, Vanessa L. Bond and Erin M. Firnhaber in additional roles; and by the Master Chorale of Washington.

Although nearly impossible to summarize, suffice it to say that “Peer Gynt” is a surrealistic play about a Norwegian trickster and ne’er-do-well who seduces and abandons any number of women without remorse. He travels from Europe to Araby and back seeking companionship, treasure and the meaning of life - and, by all accounts, fails save for winning the love of the beautiful and faithful Solveig in the end.

The wild scene changes, including an evening of revels in the mountain troll kingdom, gave Grieg plenty of chances to compose interesting music, which he did. Indeed, excerpts from his “Peer Gynt” suites, including “Anitra’s Dance,” “Morning Mood,” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” are still part of classical music’s Top 40.

The rest of the score, as performed here, is equally imaginative, and only rarely seems to drag throughout its roughly one hour and 40 minute duration, played here without intermission.

Orchestra and soloists were enthusiastic and on top of their game throughout - although the melodic lines were occasionally buried - and Mr. de Lancie’s vigorous narration simply adds to the enjoyment of this brand new “museum piece” that still sounds entirely new.

***

MAXIMUM RATINGS: FOUR STARS

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