For its entry in the gala pre-season, the National Symphony Orchestra offered a starry, entertaining event Sunday night at the Kennedy Center that drew plenty of dressy Washington elite, along with just plain old music-loving folk, and raised a record $2.2 million.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's gala the night before (which took in $900,000) had nearly as glittery-looking a turnout, and may have had a slight edge in the celebrity count, what with present and former senators, a former governor and director John Waters among the crowd.
But while the musical portion of the BSO affair delivered a jumble of mostly tapas-sized repertoire in one big, we've-got-to-get-back-to-partying flash, the NSO gave a regular, full-length concert. And, though it certainly had its share of froth, the program managed to be substantive and filling.
It certainly didn't hurt to have the extra glamour of radiant-voiced soprano Renee Fleming as one of the soloists, along with the up-and-coming teenage pianist, Peng Peng. And in Leonard Slatkin, the evening had an ideal guide on the podium. The conductor, now in his final season as NSO music director, knows how to get great mileage out of a feel-good, please-the-patrons concert like this.
Never one to look down on so-called lighter classics, Slatkin had the brilliant Overture to Franz von Suppe's Poet and Peasant spinning along with great expressive flair (too bad the brass buried the strings). Likewise, he caught the true Viennese elan of the perfectly constructed Overture to Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus, but could have brought greater rhythmic character to that composer's Emperor Waltz.
In a supporting role, Slatkin had much to offer, assuring a seamless orchestral fit to Fleming's singing. The soprano approached Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate in overly operatic fashion and ran into technical trouble in the first of her cadenzas, but it was smooth, gorgeous sailing after that.
Turning to two arias by Erich Wolfgang Korngold featured on her most recent solo CD (Homage - The Age of the Diva), Fleming soared.
Ich soll ihn niemals from Die Kathrin might owe a little too much to Marietta's Lied from the composer's better known opera Die tote Stadt, but the effect of all that lush coloring and melting lyricism somehow sounds just as fresh. Fleming phrased it exquisitely. She did the same in the rapturous Ich ging zu ihm from Das Wunder der Heliane.
The NSO seemed to revel in Korngold's shimmering orchestration, producing some of the most potent playing of the evening. That warmth continued as the ensemble backed the soprano in Richard Strauss' ecstatic Cacilie and a wonderfully spacious account of his ethereal Morgen (the violin solo here by the usually impeccable concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef came up a little short on smoothness and warmth).
The Fleming magic continued in Puccini's O mio babbino caro, which she enriched toward the end with a venerable, now rarely encountered vocal effect - the messa di voce, a gradual crescendo and decrescendo on a single note. Great stuff.
Back on the first half of the concert, Peng Peng made the most of his moment in the spotlight. The Chinese pianist, all of 14, tackled Liszt's Concerto No. 1 with the confidence of a weathered veteran. There is a welcome unbridled quality to his playing, rather than the safer, blander style of some prodigies, and he can produce a truly big tone, which is just what this concerto needs.