Nature, nuance, or its lack thereof, were central themes when the National Symphony Orchestra welcomed conductor Gemma New, pianist Yefim Bronfman, and the young composer Salina Fisher to Washington Thursday night.
Before dropping the first downbeat of the program in her NSO debut, New elucidated to the audience the range of sensory sounds in store for the night’s programming. She described what would be the “color” in Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Beethoven’s “heavenly heights” in his Piano Concert No. 4 in G major, and most trippy of all, “the dew sparkling on the grass,” among other sonic imitations of nature conjured in Salina Fisher’s Rainphase, which was first up.
Written when she was barely 22, and evocative of the wet and windy soundscape of her native Wellington, New Zealand – also New’s hometown – Fisher’s composition is both lyrical and atmospheric. In an era when composers often turn to non-traditional instruments to create a mood, Fisher told me after the performance she used only what was at hand in any standard orchestra. The trick was to give the musicians free rein to play their respective instruments in new ways. It wasn’t a free for all, but there was plenty of room for individual interpretation – think jazz, but as though it were the amorphous wind and rain voicing and exchanging the chords, instead of a trumpet or bass line.
Members of the woodwinds and brass sections formed their embouchures, and then barley blew into their instruments, as though displacing a wisp of hair rather than honking or fluting. The violinists meanwhile used their bows to rub slow, sensual circles over their strings while fretting chords. The compound effect sounded like waves gently lapping the shore, or wind in the trees. Although Fisher told me the score was marked “tremolo” in these passages, the amount of pressure and tempi used was up to the individual. These were only some of the inventions in a score that despite its emphasis on sound effects still had enough structure to indicate a clear beginning, middle, and end. It was a reminder that all music begins with sounds from nature. It was transfixing to witness the music of a coming tempest, the thrash of its powerful arrival, and the gentle return of calm as it receded.
Audience members were so mesmerized, they properly let a moment pass before leaping to their feet and creating their own thunder of applause. After the storm of approval had quieted, some in attendance realized the composer was seated among them, and rose to applaud her all over again.
Bronfman is known for his lyrical interpretations of Beethoven, an especially notable gift when playing works by among the most percussive of all composers for the piano. In this performance, Bronfman did not disappoint, phrasing this pounding piece into a series of intelligent dialogues between himself and the composer, the composer and soloist, the piano and orchestra.
Some purport the work’s “Andante con moto”, with its combative tone, invokes the Greek myth of Orpheus mollifying the Furies in the Underworld. There is no conclusive proof of this since Beethoven did not leave any notes to clarify his meaning, but Bronfman gave adamant voice to his side of the composer’s hellacious argument between the piano and the orchestra’s strings. Bronfman’s skillful balance of fire and tenderness throughout, but especially in the “Andante moderato”, impelled the audience to break from the traditional silence between movements and – How shall I say it? – go nuts, a precursor for how they would lose their minds when Bronfman took his final bows.
The Beethoven piece also hinted at something that didn’t become fully evident until the last work on the program, Holst’s The Planets. At times during the concerto, the strings sounded warm and full as they increasingly do under Maestro Gianandrea Noseda in his tenure as NSO’s music director. But, at other times, they sounded wooden and very loud. Still, since the majority of the Beethoven is scored for piano and strings, it was not yet obvious just how loud.
It was during the performance of “Jupiter” that I figured out what was happening. I was about to blame it on the brass section for dragging, which they did do a few times, and on the strings for sawing out their notes, which they also were guilty of more than the brass was of dragging, but when the “jollity” promised by Holst in his musical sketch of the largest planet in our solar system’s namesake never fully materialized, I understood the real issue was New’s lack of control. Where she should have been guiding each section to shape their sound in relation to one another, there was just loud, unsubtle sameness. It was more like listening to a mud puddle than a heavenly sphere.
This is not to knock New. She has a palpable energy and is crystal clear with her baton. In this performance, however, she didn’t lead so much as perform leading, and with balletic movements at that. I was dismayed, and also distracted, by her gestures resembling ports de bras and tendus, or on at least two occasions, preparations for a handspring. With all the overly grand gestures, she appeared more parade marshal than serious orchestra conductor. But she is a serious conductor, with a growing list of major gigs to her name, including tenures with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
It brought to mind just how difficult it is to move 75 or more sounds in the same direction, and how a 33-year-old still has much to learn before she has refined her mettle. My hope is New will mature in the decade to come into what her otherwise obvious talent promises could be an energetic and confident conductor who dances less, commands her charges more.
That said, while the NSO didn’t sabotage New, neither did they do her any favors. Although they took a keen interest in their roles for the Fisher work, their otherwise lackluster sound under New’s baton made clear that the NSO is still developing enough disciplined finesse to overcome Noseda’s occasional absences. The upside is that it provided contrasting evidence for how much the band seems to respect and like playing for Noseda. It will be very interesting indeed to hear them next week when erstwhile NSO conductor Christoph Eschenbach returns to conduct two works by Dvořák and another by Schumann.
The University of Maryland Concert Choir directed by Edward Maclary also performed in The Planets.
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes
The National Symphony Orchestra will perform Salina Fisher’s Rainphase, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, and Gustav Holst’s The Planets through Sunday, January 19, 2020, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or go online.