- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

There were two surprises in store Thursday evening as the National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Ludovic Morlot, presented its second regular season concert in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall.

The first was a nifty composition by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. The second surprise was a smashing last-minute appearance by pianist Markus Groh in the venerable Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. He was called in to perform the work in place of scheduled pianist Nelson Freire, who withdrew due to health concerns.

The music of Bohuslav Martinu is a marvelous amalgam of Romanticism, late impressionism and dense modernism that challenges audiences without driving them from the auditorium. His three-part tone poem, “The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca” (1956) — performed here by the NSO for the first time — is a contemplative, yet frequently energetic interpretation of three religious frescoes charting the Christian legend of the True Cross.

Ranging from moments of quiet mysticism to outbursts of epic strife, Martinu employs a variety of complex tonal effects, punctuated at times by rapid, percussive shots from the xylophone. It’s a challenging piece and was performed quite well by the NSO, save for some uncertain entrances in the first movement.

Next on tap was Tchaikovsky’s more familiar “Francesca da Rimini,” Op. 32. It’s the composer’s spooky symphonic fantasy on an early episode in Dante’s “Inferno,” the tragic tale of illicit lovers Paolo and Francesca.

The piece opens with a depiction of Dante’s frightening descent into Hell. This evolves into a violently whirling episode conveying the star-crossed lovers’ punishment in the afterworld as they and others like them are tossed through space and time in a never-ending whirlwind. Under Maestro Morlot’s crisp direction, the NSO gave one of its most viscerally exciting performances ever, right up to the work’s hair-raising final bars.

Concluding the program was the evening’s big work, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. Opening with a series of edgy, bristling trills, it’s a composition of symphonic length and ambition — a taxing work for any pianist, let alone one who flies into town to play it on short notice.

Fortunately, Mr. Groh has regularly performed the concerto. He turned in a memorably energetic yet metaphysical performance Thursday evening, highlighting Brahms’ strict, almost Mozartian classicism, a tradition that often battles with the composer’s passionate, Romantic heart. The NSO accompanied him with a warmth and oneness that characterizes this ensemble at its best.

The concert will be repeated Saturday evening as well as at an unusual Sunday matinee performance.

WHAT: The National Symphony Orchestra: Music by Martinu, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms. Guest conductor Ludovic Morlot.
WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall
WHEN: Oct. 10 at 8 pm; Oct. 11 at 1:30 pm.
TICKETS: $20-$85
PHONE: 202/467-4600.
WEB SITE: https://www.kennedy-center.org

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