The National Symphony Orchestra wrapped up its 2006-2007 season with a concert that found both the ensemble and its music director, Leonard Slatkin, at the top of their game.
As usual, Slatkin came up with a deft mix of repertoire - symphonies by Haydn (we could never get too much Haydn around here) and Mahler surrounded a premiere by American composer Mark Adamo. The latter's Four Angels, a concerto for harp and orchestra, was commissioned by the NSO for its longtime harpist, Dotian Levalier. It's a significant, substantial piece.
Best known for his operatic work, especially Little Women (which gets its area premiere next week by Summer Opera Theater in Washington), Adamo writes music that has a direct appeal. You can detect an assortment of influences, but an individuality shines through his fundamentally tonal style, and it does so with considerable effectiveness in this concerto.
Adamo goes in for a lot of extra-musical connections here. Each of the movements is related to a celestial being - the Kabbalah's Metatron, Zoroastrianism's Sraosha, the Queen of Heaven, the archangel Michael. But none of the religious and literary allusions seemed essential to grasping the music Saturday. It was fun just to drink in this rich, symphonylike dialogue between harp and orchestra.
Adamo does not shy away from using lots of arpeggios - the most cliched effect on a harp - but he manages to make almost all of them sound as though they have an expressive point. And the harp is beautifully integrated into the orchestral fabric, which is, in itself, remarkably colorful, with a wealth of color from the percussion. The quizzical end of the first movement and the almost ecstatic outpouring of lyricism in the third are among the most memorable passages in the roughly 25-minute score.
Levalier offered technical mastery and vivid phrasing. Slatkin and the NSO backed their colleague sensitively.
Except for the lilting middle section of the Scherzo, which could have used more elasticity and nostalgic glow, Slatkin's interpretative ideas unleashed the emotional and pictorial depth of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 with exceptional freshness. He inspired a cohesive, brilliant response from the orchestra, which offered nuance, warmth and, in climactic moments, tremendous force.
An arresting performance.
National Conducting Institute
The National Conducting Institute, founded and guided by Slatkin, immerses participants in practically every aspect of the orchestral business, not just music-making. But music is the focus of each institute's final event, when conductors on the cusp of their careers get to lead the NSO in public.
The 2007 NCI program will present Kayoko Dan, Julian Kuerti, Marcelo Lehninger and Ruth Lin in a concert at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Kennedy Center. The program includes music by Beethoven, Franck, Wagner and Dvorak. Admission is free. Call 800-444-1324.