- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

Guest conductor Hugo Wolf took the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) last week at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in an inventive program that sandwiched the D.C. premiere of a new American concerto between symphonies penned by two reliable German masters.

Opening this past Thursday, the program commenced with Franz Josef Haydn’s rarely-heard Symphony No. 90 in C major. While somewhat brittle compared to the composer’s great “London” Symphony (No. 104), the 90th nonetheless offers plenty of charm and delight of its own. The work’s concluding movement featured not one but two fake endings — typical of Haydn’s wry humor — which Maestro Wolf worked to the hilt, craftily trapping the audience in the joke and loving it. Who says classical music has to be deadly serious?

Mr. Wolf’s program concluded with Robert Schumann’s ambitious Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61. A vigorous, mostly sunny work, the symphony was, ironically, composed during one of the composer’s frequent bouts of depression. The NSO disconnected from the tempo in the 1st movement’s bridging accelerando which joins the solemn opening motif to the main allegro ma non troppo. Fortunately, they soon righted themselves and the remainder of the performance was strong and energetic, particularly in the driving, irresistible scherzo and the triumphant finale that brings the symphony to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

The intended centerpiece of the evening, however, was “Crosswinds,” a new concerto for flute, piano and orchestra by contemporary American composer and current Toronto resident Michael Colgrass. Mr. Colgrass himself helpfully introduced the piece, describing it as an “opera” in which the primary roles were undertaken by the flute, representing the Eastern musical tradition, and the piano, representing the music of the West. The orchestra, he stated, serves as a kind of Greek “chorus,” adding background and commentary to what is in effect a musical argument.

Calling this work an “opera,” though, was a stretch, reminding this critic of a contemporary poet who proclaimed his unrhymed, unmetered 13-line poem to be a “sonnet.” What “Crosswinds” is, in fact, is an extended fantasy for the two solo instruments that leaves the question of musical superiority essentially unanswered, a la Charles Ives.

“Crosswinds” is part and parcel of a classical music generation that is fitfully attempting to find its way back to its tonal traditions after nearly a century of academically-inspired atonal cacophony. Like contemporary minimalists, Mr. Colgrass will work with a motif, but will not risk critical opprobrium by hazarding a real melody. Although frequently interesting and entertaining, “Crosswinds” is an overly long and overly intellectualized concert piece that lacks the distinct emotional core of, say, a Robert Schumann finale. It will not irritate its audience, but concertgoers had little to remember on their drive home.

The spirited husband-wife duo of flutist Marina Piccinini and pianist Andreas Haefliger championed “Crosswinds” with great enthusiasm. Miss Piccinini by far got the showier stuff to perform, but both have a keen ear for the music and worked seamlessly together. It’s refreshing to see young artists barnstorming the concert circuit with new works in hand. Now it’s up to our composers to step up to the plate and give such artists even better material to work with.

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