Easter season enlivens the musical life of any major cultural capital, and Washington’s growth as one left no lack of offerings this year. The National Symphony continued its seventy-eighth season with two ambitious programs. The last days of Passion Week resounded with all-Brahms evenings, the highlight of which was the composer’s pious Ein deutsches Requiem, preceded by his shorter Variations on a Theme by Haydn. For this titan of German music, the NSO brought in a star conductor. At 81 Kurt Masur, longtime director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic among other assignments, still proved capable of delivering a robust interpretation. Variations on a Theme unfolded with mellifluous intricacy, particularly in the passacaglia at the finale. Ein deutsches Requiem presents greater challenges, but Mr. Masur’s accomplished musicianship left no room for disappointment.
At the performance of Saturday, April 11, the orchestra played with Teutonic conviction on what the faithful celebrate as the eve of Christ’s resurrection. The Master Chorale of Washington contributed a fine effort, though one of its members was overcome and had to be escorted from the stage. Soloists drawn from the operatic world added dramatic flair. Baritone John Relyea sang with stern authority, benefiting from his fine legato and stentorian tonality. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy complemented him nicely, though her lilting voice is not what it once was.
The following week NSO music director Ivan Fischer led a mixed program of works by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and the young American composer Daniel Kellogg. Kellogg’s Western Skies, an original piece commissioned by the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works, is meant to depict the seasons and landscapes of the composer’s native Colorado. The world premiere seemed to go well enough, but the piece itself sounded more like a film score without a film than a work of the naturalist tradition in which it seeks a place. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor returned us to the established world of classical music. Fischer’s reading was playful at times and moving where it counted. The fine violinist and conductor Leonidas Kavakos, now artistic director of the Camerata Salzburg, performed his instrumental solos with verve.
The evening concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, a distillation of the composer’s signature approach to sonata, ballet, opera, and orchestral musical forms. Fischer led the orchestra well in each movement, though at times his approach sounded rather academic. In the percussive finale this resulted in a tepid reading.