Washington’s elite – or at least those in it who have leisure time in these heady days of health care drudgery — turned out in force for the opening of the National Symphony’s season. Among the audience one could observe former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and wife Andrea Mitchell, ubiquitous Washington insider Vernon Jordan, noted journalists Thomas Friedman and Charles Krauthamer, and former Federal Aviation Administration chief Marion Blakey, among others famous and infamous. Despite the rainy weather, the beginning of the Symphony’s 79th season was no dull affair, with flowers, abundant evening dress, and even the appearance of the orchestra’s ladies in colorful evening gowns. Principal conductor Ivan Fischer has had a mixed reception in the year since he assumed the post, and, though I rather enjoyed the concert, reactions were far from uniform.
The entire Kennedy Center complex will follow a “Focus on Russia” theme this season, complete with a longer than usual visit by the opera and ballet of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater. So it was entirely appropriate to begin the program with a rousing performance of the overture to Mikhail Glinka’s opera Russlan and Ludmilla. This was followed by a playful rendition of Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta,” a pastiche of folk pieces in the tradition of his native land, which he shared with Maestro Fischer. The common heritage was, to be completely honest, probably the only reason to include the piece, but no one regretted it. The Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Melodies) ended the first part of the program. Based on Hungarian gypsy tunes rather than the abundant Spanish variety, national provenance again was clearly the reason for including the piece. But once again it was no mistake. Jozsef Lendvay’s solo violin brought the music to life with artful elegance.
Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 opened the second part of the program. Soloist Evgeny Kissin, still a prodigy after all these years, delivered a strong Romantic interpretation, eased by Fischer’s likeminded conducting. Kissin, who will also play the piece this season for the opening nights of the Boston Symphony at home and at Carnegie Hall, made us forget that the piece, really Chopin’s first work in the genre (his Piano Concerto No. 1 was written later than this piece but published earlier and is thus listed first), is not among the concert repertoire’s most thrilling selections. He received a well deserved standing ovation at the end. The next selection returned to the world of opera, this time Richard Strauss’s Salome, in the form of its famous dance. Fischer sacrificed subtlety and seductive power to raw sound, but it is always a thrilling piece of music to hear and imagine, even for Washington’s cerebral audience. The gala character of the evening virtually demanded something familiar for its conclusion, and we found it in the other Strauss’s best known waltz, On the Beautiful Blue Danube. The orchestra played it jauntily enough, though it never really seems to excite anyone. The Dvorak dance given as an encore was much more enjoyable. It was too bad that the nation’s capital was not honored with a pre-concert performance of the national anthem, as befits such occasions.