The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – Concert Hall
January 8th, 2010
The Music Binge was out to get cultured this week my friends. Having seen a multitude of different types and styles of music over the course of this project, I still hadn’t witnessed something quite like what I saw and heard on Friday night. As I took my seat and the lights in the massive Kennedy Center concert hall dimmed, I had no idea what I was about to experience.
Note: There will be no pictures accompanying this review due to the nature of the performance, i.e. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to sneak a few shots like I normally do…a rock show this was not.
Concerto in B minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61 composed by Edward Elgar
The performance began when the conductor, Leonard Slatkin entered and took his place on the riser directly in front of the orchestra members. Following this grand entrance came an even grander one, when concertmaster (which means she is subordinate only to the conductor) Nurit Bar-Josef, a violinist, entered the hall and found her place at the head of the string section. Finally, and possibly the most impressive, guest violinist and the star of the first act, Nikolaj Znaider entered and took his post, standing directly to the left of the conductor.
In addition to the massive string section (which included Znaider and Bar-Josef), the first composition of the evening featured two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, a contrabassoon (basically a larger bassoon), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, a tuba and a timpani (otherwise known as a kettle drum)…whew, that was a mouthful! The next thing that happened completely blew my mind. With a wave of his wand, Slatkin had the entire ensemble, which had heretofore been randomly warming up their instruments, playing one note in unison. The resulting sound was kind of like that THX sound you hear in a theater before the movie starts, when the 5.1 surround sound melds perfectly in your eardrums. Truly amazing!
Slatkin proceeded to lead the orchestra into their performance of "Concerto in B minor" as Znaider stood idly by his side, with eyes closed, his head bobbing at all the right places in the music. Finally, when his time came, the guest violinist situated his instrument beneath his chin, steadied his bow on the strings and then erupted into a flurry of motion and sound. Considered to be one of the premier violinists in the world, Znaider commanded the stage and led the entire orchestra through the first act of their performance. This guy made playing the violin look every bit as cool as any rock God with a guitar…he was impressive to say the least.
On a side note, and adding to Znaider’s coolness, the instrument he played during this performance has an unbelievable history behind it. The violin is called the "ex-Kreisler" and was made by Guarnerius del Gesu (one of the most revered violin makers in history) in 1741. It is on loan to Mr. Znaider by The Royal Danish Theater (Znaider is Danish). The violin is the same one that was played at the premiere of the "Concerto in B minor" in London on November 10th, 1910 (Fritz Kreisler was the soloist that night). How’s that for a history lesson?
The Planets, Op. 32 composed by Gustav Holst
For act two, the National Symphony Orchestra re-tooled, this time taking the stage with four flutes, three oboes, an English horn, three clarinets, a bass clarinet, three bassoons, a contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, two trombones, one bass trombone, a tenor tuba, a bass tuba, two timpanis, a bass drum, cymbals and percussion that included a glockenspiel (a smaller, higher pitched version of a xylophone), a gong, bells, a side drum, a suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, a tambourine, a triangle, a xylophone and a celesta (similar to a xylophone, but played via a keyboard instead of by striking with a mallet). Oh yeah, there was also an organ, two harps, a full string section and a women’s chorus…impressed yet? The whole ensemble was again led by conductor Leonard Slatkin and concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef.
Unlike the performance during act one, "The Planets" had no soloist and was therefore a true sum of all the various parts that made up the orchestra. This piece of music is divided into seven movements, all of which are based on…you guessed it…planets. It opened with the strikingly dark, almost sinister sounds of "Mars, the Bringer of War", which melded into the more soothing, calming sounds of "Venus, the Bringer of Peace". The music then evolved into the more upbeat sounding "Mercury, the Winged Messenger", which eventually gave way to the centerpiece of "The Planets", "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity".
In my mind, that’s what was so amazing about listening to the second act of the orchestra’s performance tonight, the fact that each of the seven planetary movements was easily discernable from one another, whether you were familiar with the piece or not. The jovial sounds of Jupiter devolved into the dreary, depressing sounds of "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age". And right on the heels of that segment was the appropriately mesmerizing "Uranus, the Magician" and then the finale, "Neptune, the Mystic". "The Planets" came to a close with the vocals from the women’s choir, set offstage and out of sight of the audience, echoing gently and growing quieter and softer until there was nothing left but silence. The effect was incredible, as if you’ve reached the end of the universe as we know it and all that is left is the nothingness of space. An overwhelmingly, amazing performance…the National Symphony Orchestra introduced me to an entirely new side of music, as classical is a genre I hadn’t previously given much attention. Like that aforementioned great expanse we call the universe, the Music Binge too continues to expand.