- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

The National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director Leonard Slatkin, performed an eclectic program of showy, largely 20th-century music Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center, highlighting works by Maurice Ravel, Franz Liszt and Sergei Prokofiev and featuring rising young Chinese pianist Yundi Li.

The concert opened with four short works by Ravel — two familiar, two less so. The composer’s infrequently heard “Alborada del Gracioso” and “Menuet Antique” (“Morning Song of a Jester” and “Ancient Minuet”) began life as piano pieces and later were reconceptualized for orchestra. “Menuet” is quirky and charming, while “Alborada” is musically more dense, infused with a tart Spanish flavor and burnished with dark orchestral undertones.

The remaining Ravel pieces have been popular with the public for many years. Both of them also originally were conceived for the piano. The well-known “Pavane pour une Infante Defunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) even today is provided frequently to intermediate piano students to encourage their level of challenge and musical awareness, and its poignant strains are greatly enhanced by Ravel’s orchestral version.

Likewise, the composer’s famous “La Valse,” which concluded this set, benefits from the orchestral insights of this brilliant musical colorist. Its swirling celebration of the Viennese waltz acquires an ominous tinge, perhaps because of the composer’s service as an ambulance driver in World War I. The result is a piece that is at once vibrant and exuberant yet imbued with a profound sense of foreboding right up to its thunderous climax. The NSO performed all four of the Ravel pieces crisply, idiosyncratically and with great enthusiasm.

Stepping back into the 19th century, the NSO next accompanied guest soloist Yundi Li in a sharp, playful interpretation of Liszt’s enduringly popular Piano Concert No. 1 in E-flat major. Initially pilloried by critics for its insistent use of triangle in the percussion section, the work has been a standard in pianists’ repertoire from the outset in spite of its daunting bravura complexity.

The enthusiastic Mr. Li — 25, who at 18 the was youngest-ever winner of the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw — performed the work with seeming effortlessness. He occasionally disappointed with muddy passage work here and indistinct tenor voicing there, but on the other hand, the witty interplay between the soloist and the orchestra has rarely been executed with greater precision and insight.

Tapping into the spirit of Washington’s ongoing celebration of Shakespeare, the program’s second half featured an assortment of scenes from Prokofiev’s magnificent ballet “Romeo and Juliet,” Op. 64. Composed over a long period and eventually premiered in 1938, the score is almost inconceivably ravishing, seamlessly blending the composer’s signature acidic and driving modernism with highly memorable, achingly romantic strains that render the young lovers’ emotions almost palpable.

The NSO performed some of the best known parts of the score. Among them were the fight and balcony scenes, which contrast starkly with each other, pitting the violent, percussive street brawling and eventual murder of Mercutio and Tybalt against the poignant lyricism of the young lovers’ passionately blooming romance. Maestro Slatkin and the orchestra opted for a more “symphonic” interpretation of the music, conceptualizing it more as a multipart tone poem than a true ballet score. Without the dancers, this proved an insightful approach to this magnificent music.

The NSO’s enjoyable and suitably springlike performance will be repeated tonight in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

***

WHAT: National Symphony Orchestra concert program featuring pianist Yundi Li and works by Ravel, Liszt and Prokofiev

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

WHEN: Tonight at 8

TICKETS: $20 to $80

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

WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org


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