MUSIC: NSO’s ‘No. 6’ opener tranquil

The National Symphony Orchestra opened its regular season in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Thursday evening with an unusual concert pairing Beethoven’s beloved Symphony No. 6 in F major (“Pastoral”) with Bela Bartok’s rarely seen ballet, “The Wooden Prince.” As most of his fans are well aware, Beethoven was a great lover of nature. The tranquil 6th Symphony — in many ways more of a tone poem — brings life to the composer’s inner pantheist, linking each movement to specific pastoral scenes.

Under the baton of principal conductor Ivan Fischer, the NSO gave a measured, understated reading to the master’s score, tastefully performed but a touch underwhelming. The symphony’s humorous moments — the “cuckoo” scene and the third movement’s buffoonish rustic band passages — were performed with a wink and a smile. But the famous thunderstorm scene and the ensuing finale seemed a bit too polite.

Considerably more impressive was the orchestra’s first-ever complete performance of Bartok’s “Wooden Prince” ballet, which took up the concert’s entire second half. It’s likely that few in Thursday evening’s audience — including this reviewer — had ever heard this roughly 45-minute score. Instead of Bartok, the spiky modernist, what the audience got instead was an earlier, mellower composer whose dissonances were leavened with touches of Romanticism and Impressionism.

First performed in 1917, “The Wooden Prince” is based on a fairy tale. Prince meets Princess. She rejects him, falling in love instead with a crude wooden puppet he has fashioned. Both young people eventually discover happiness with one another by becoming one with the forests and streams that once opposed them at the bidding of a mysterious wood-fairy.

Bartok employs a large orchestra, including saxophones and doubled woodwinds, to paint this rather pantheistic fable in 20th century sensibility. But save for an occasional massive climax, the shimmering percussion, harps and orchestral sections are used instead as tonal watercolors, giving each scene a unique and memorable musical signature.

Maestro Fischer clearly knows this work well. The NSO responded to his vision, presenting as good a performance of this “new” Bartok work as one is likely to hear. It proved the surprise highlight of the evening, and the orchestra ought to get it on a CD. Barring that, you still have two more chances — Friday and Saturday evening — to catch this extraordinary musical experience.

★★★½
WHAT: The National Symphony Orchestra, Ivan Fischer conducting, presents Beethoven and Bartok
WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
WHEN: Oct. 2 and 3 at 8 p.m.
TICKETS: $25-85.
PHONE: 202/467-4700
WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org

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