The season is drawing to a close, and we are in that curious moment of interregnum in the Kennedy Center, in which the outgoing musical director Christopher Eschenbach appears very occasionally and the incoming Gianandrea Noseda, as yet, hardly at all. So tonight we had Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno conducting the National Symphony Orchestra in a programme which was largely comforting and conventional, in some respects, a programme which marked time.

Gustavo Gimeno © Marco Borggreve
Gustavo Gimeno
© Marco Borggreve

The exception was Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto, co-commissioned by the NSO and Eschenbach and tonight receiving its Kennedy Center première in the very capable hands of Paul Jacobs. Rouse has gone against his usual preference for non-standard structures – he has, as it were, rebelled against his rebellion – and opted for the traditional three movements: fast, slow and fast. This 2014 work reminds one of a Jackson Pollock painting; its coloristic effects are many, and blotchily applied – meanderings, trailings-off and incomplete melodic shapes are punctuated by violent outbursts. Incoherence is its coherent link. The relationship between the organ and orchestra goes by in fits and starts too; they egg each other on at times, or seemingly do their own thing at others. Is there a plot to this? Rouse is emphatic that there isn’t. He hopes instead to express emotional states and these are in evidence, emotions of the darker kind most of all: terror and fear and aloneness to name but three.

There are hints of resignation and retraint too, with ecclesiastical echoes in certain chords and repetitions of pious quietude. The finale mushroomed into a veritable pandemonium with the joint forces of orchestra and organ (an orchestra in itself) unleashed; it is inevitable that such moments make one think of a Dies irae; the resonances of the instrument are consciously or unconsciously evoked. There was a play of consonance as if it were all going to end tonally, and then the final dissonance. This was engagingly challenging material; Jacobs' Bach encore was also dazzlingly played.

Rouse was hemmed in by easier-on the ear Romantic works, known to and beloved by all. First was Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, rather unseasonal admittedly, but why should that matter? The opening was played frothily, and with precision of effect. I particularly enjoyed the stomping end of the Russian dance, and the ethereal harp (Adriana Horne) and sweeping strings of the Waltz of the Flowers. There were moments of heaviness, however, in some of the other miniature dances when it didn't take off. 

Rounding out the programme’s Russian romanticisim was Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade. With a fine resonant volume from the start and exquisitely sweet tones from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, weaving in and out the heroine’s mesmerizing tales, how could we, as well as King Shahryar, fail to be moved? The harp was delicately other-worldly whilst the tug of the brass was a powerful current beneath the lyrical strings, all embroidering the preposterous narratives; notable also were the poignant, quizzical and mysterious oboe and bassoon. There was plenty of gumption in the fourth movement, The Ship Breaks Against a Cliff, and dramatic instantaneous changes of pitch, and a last terrific build-up of sound before the peaceful, restorative end. 

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