On a perfect summer evening, the National Symphony Orchestra took on two Russians – Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff – during their popular NSO@Wolf Trap Summer Series for an explosive evening billed as the 1812 Orchestra and More! If that had been the only piece they tackled, it would have been more than enough, but the evening included a varied program from some of these two composers most famous works – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, the Nutcracker, and Tchaikovsky’s most famous waltzes.
It was a feel good night, if you can say such a thing about Russian classical music, but deceptively challenging. Since they tackled all the crowd favorites they set themselves a high bar; these melodies are so familiar. After two standing ovations and three encores, the NSO delivered, along with British piano marvel Benjamin Grosvenor.
Grosvenor tackled Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a stately piece filled with blurring arpeggios, heavy bass melodies, and soft, playful solos at the top of the instrument. It sounded more like an emotional film soundtrack than a traditional concerto. Rachmaninoff was a virtuoso on piano and Grosvenor does him justice, wringing pathos from this challenging piece with jaw-dropping technical precision. He is called a prodigy and sometimes that word is tossed around to describe a player who has done a lot of practicing young. Grosvenor is more than that. He is a marvelous musician and a rare talent who does not just play the piano, but makes art.
In the second part, NSO Assistant Conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl, in his Wolf Trap debut, tackled Tchaikovsky’s waltzes. He is an enthusiastic and passionate conductor and it was fun to see another artist at the beginning of his career. Between waltzes from The Sleeping Beauty, Hamlet, and Serenade for Strings, he’d banter with the audience with a grin on his face about ¾ time and Tchaikovsky’s interesting biography. The waltzes were sweet and playful and it seemed that the cicadas were dancing along to the dancing melodies.
The 1812 Orchestra capped the night in every way. One of the joys of seeing a show at a national park is that when the score calls for cannon fire, they can deliver. Actual cannons fired out on the lawn next to the Filene Center. This rendition was particularly fun after Bahl’s narration of the piece about the Napoleon advance on (and defeat) in Russian in 1812. It begins with a traditional Russian prayer, includes the French National anthem, Russian folk music, French soldiers running away to frantic violins before the battle, and final victory. No wall of sound in any modern action film can match the 1812 Orchestra and Bahl seemed to conjure the battle itself with his baton, but never sacrificing musicality for the spectacle this piece can inspire.
There is a magical alchemy that happens between Wolf Trap and the National Symphony Orchestra every summer and this evening was a perfect example – entertaining, awe-inspiring, and fun.
Running time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
NSO@Wolf Trap 1812 Orchestra and More! Played for one played on July 26, 2013 for one night only at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center – 1551 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future performances and information, call (877) 965-3872), or check their calendar of events.