NSO premieres composer Higdon’s dazzling concerto

The National Symphony Orchestra, under the able baton of guest conductor Andrew Litton, presented the world premiere performance of Jennifer Higdon’s scintillating, first-ever Piano Concerto at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall Thursday evening. It was brilliantly performed by 22-year-old pianist and recent Grammy nominee Yuja Wang.

Also on tap were Rimsky-Korsakov’s Suite from “The Snow Maiden,” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op. 13.

Philadelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon has been a hot commodity on the classical circuit in recent years, scoring a bucket load of commissions from ensembles and artists alike. They’re all eager to perform new music. Not the screechy, soulless, atonal stuff that used to send audiences fleeing from the concert hall scrambling for a cross and a garland of garlic. But music that challenges the artist and pleased today’s audience with a contemporary yet accessible edginess.

And Ms. Higdon delivers.

Commissioned for the NSO by the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works, her concerto is written in a traditional three-movement structure. It’s the classic duel/duet between pianist and orchestra, adding occasional spicy bits for the first chair musicians.

The composer’s first foray into the piano concerto, the work is a complex blend of new ideas and witty hat tips to twentieth century innovators like Prokofiev and Bartok, both of whom highlighted the piano’s secret identity as a percussion instrument. The piano part is strenuous and nearly continuous, loaded with challenging trills and cascading octaves. The diminutive Yuja Wang attacked these challenges ferociously while paradoxically retaining her poise and Zen-like calm in her elegant reading of the music.

The outer movements contain the concerto’s most interesting material. Particularly notable is the humorous, attention-grabbing battle between the piano and a battery of percussion instruments that launches the crazy-quilt finale. It lit up the auditorium, and the audience leaped up to give Ms. Wang, the orchestra — which performed splendidly — and the composer (who appeared on stage) an enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovation.

The other two pieces on the program are part of this season’s “Focus on Russia.”

Of the four dance pieces excerpted from Rimsky-Korsakoff’s opera “The Snow Maiden,” the second — the Dance of the Birds — and the fourth — the Dance of the Skomorokhi — were the most interesting. The former twittered and fluttered through the strings and winds, backgrounded by an unusual hard-malleted figure on the bass drum. The final dance, depicting a troupe of acrobats, is the best known of the four pieces, and the NSO gave it the rousing performance it deserves.

The final piece on the program was Tchaikovsky’s early First Symphony. It’s not his best, but contains plenty of moments that foreshadow his later, more popular compositions. The symphony’s highlight is its slow-starting but ultimately riveting finale, propelled by the NSO brass sounding as tight and dramatic as they ever have.

★★★
WHAT: The National Symphony Orchestra presents works by Rimsky-Korsakoff, Higdon and Tchaikovsky.
WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall
WHEN: Dec. 5 at 8 p.m.
TICKETS: $20-$85
PHONE: 202/467-4600
WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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