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National Symphony Orchestra, ‘Mahler Explored’ With Christoph Eschenbach, Conductor and Leonidas Kavakos, Violin

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Last night at The Kennedy Center Concert Hall marked a special evening for all – conductor, players, and audience alike.

The audience, foremost, was treated to the special talents of violin virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos performing in the first half of the concert, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47. Kavakos, last a soloist with the NSO in 2011, returns to the splendid venue with immediate prowess, displaying the highest quality of musicianship.

Leonidas Kavakos. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Leonidas Kavakos. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Sibelius’s concerto is his love song to the violin virtuoso that he so wished to be in his own youth, and which he held to be a musical form of the greatest persuasion. Deeply Romantic in nature influenced by the times and conventional in its three-movement fast-slow-fast form, the concerto is perfection for an appreciator of solo concertos. It opens brilliant and grand, Kavako’s bright tones and impressive, nearly impossible, scaling of the fingerboard in an early cadenza introducing the immediately recognizable melody. He turns inwards to become a little more thoughtful in his ruminations in the slow second movement Adagio di molto¸ before transforming, almost alarmingly, into the aggressive rhythm of the finale, which Sibelius wrote truly demanding the technical prowess and virtuosity of the artist. The Sibelius serves such a satisfying musical journey, made all the much more by something unique in the complicated coherence of it all.

It is appropriate that Kavakos first gained international fame as a young winner of the Sibelius Competition in 1985, for the Sibelius – with all the nuance of melodious compatibility, not a jarring note in score – truly sings from Kavakos and his instrument. Kavakos is not an overtly flashy soloist – in fact, it can be said that he is acutely subdued in his body movements, which is in line with what many have called and lauded as the “integrity” of his playing. He is a stolid solitary figure in all essence, juxtaposing the whirlwind of people, movement, and music around him, but remains, by all means, the beacon to which all attention is drawn and all eyes and ears are riveted.

The NSO takes on the impressively complicated Mahler Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor in the second half, a behemoth of a work that many consider a turning point in Mahler’s compositional career and a lasting testament to his symphonic exploration. Like much of Mahler – almost considered synonymous by any familiar musician – the work is formidable and taxing on the musician, in this case most so on the horn, trumpet and harp. But Principal Horn Abel Pereira, Principal Trumpet William Gerlach, and Principal Harp Adriana Horne rise to the challenge spectacularly, as does the entire orchestra. The clarity of the solo trumpet prelude fills the hall in the opening of the Funeral March that opens the three-part work. There is a beauty and a convention to the parallel structure of the piece, that is somewhat peculiar when attributed to such an unconventional composer as Mahler.

In five parts, it begins and ends with the two staunch, energetic, driven movements, parted in the middle by a vigorous Scherzo, and enclosed with two slower movements, a stormy second, and the most famous fourth movement, the Adagietto. The Funeral March serves as the triumphant, jolting beginning reminding us of the latitude of Mahler’s symphonic power. But it is the Adagietto, originally penned as a tribute to his great love and wife, and initiated with the dulcet tones of harp, bass thrums, and singing strings, that is soul of this great work.

Tonight’s performance was more of a special occasion than usual, as the NSO recognized and acknowledged the accomplishments, dedication, and contributions of four retiring NSO musicians: Vernon Summers (40 years), Dennis Piwowarski (31 years), and Paula Sisson Akbar (24 years), all from the first violin section; and Robert Blatt (46 years), the orchestra’s longest-serving cellist. Collectively, they have served an astounding combined 142 years of service.

Maestro Christoph Eschenbach.Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Maestro Christoph Eschenbach. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Further commendation must be made to the leader of the great ship – Maestro Christoph Eschenbach, who tonight was commended for being awarded the 2015 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, to be presented in Munich later this spring. The prize, carefully selected from amongst international candidates, praises a lifetime of music achievement by the Maestro, and in particular his energy, innovation, and authoritative gravitas working with musicians and orchestras around the world. It was truly a night of congratulations to all, showcasing the depth of the talent and love of music present here in the heart of DC.

The NSO will perform Mahler Explored for an additional two nights on Friday, May 8 and Saturday, May 9, 2015 at 8:00 PM in the Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the Box Office at (202) 467-4600, or order them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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