The highlight of National Symphony Orchestra's “dance” evening was a performance of Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (“The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”) by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla. In its late 1990s orchestration by Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, the group of four individual pieces – not originally conceived as a suite by Piazzolla – mirrors Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons as a set of violin concerti. And the NSO had an ideal soloist for the resulting Piazzolla/Desyatnikov collaboration in its concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef.

Gianandrea Noseda © Sussie Ahlburg
Gianandrea Noseda
© Sussie Ahlburg

Somewhat atypically for a major orchestra concertmaster, Bar-Josef has a distinctive sound that runs to the more plummy and burnished side of the violin’s spectrum of timbres. For Piazzolla’s tango-inflected music, Bar-Josef’s highly involved performance was outstanding. Her jazzy shaping of the four pieces with occasional “back-phrasing” or holdbacks against the orchestral structure, paired with deep but never raspy bowing that consistently cheated to the frog half of the bow, delivered the flavor of the work across its nearly half-hour length.

Other featured and accompanying solo lines, such as those from principal cello David Hardy, could have used more interpretive “lean” at key points than the straight although attractive reading he provided it. And the orchestra as a whole could look like they’re enjoying performing the work more than some of them did, including at moments where Desyatnikov slyly quotes Vivaldi. But NSO Music Director Gianandrea Noseda did right by the Argentinian in presenting the work and the audience happily ate it up.

While not as sophisticated as the Piazzolla work, a 10-minute suite of three movements entitled Dances in the Canebrakes introduced the Washington audience to Florence Price, an African-American composer who migrated over her lifetime from Little Rock, Arkansas to Chicago and wrote the work for solo piano shortly before her death in 1953. A “canebrake” is a thicket of sugar cane and the dances hearken back to various agricultural labor situations, including slavery, that are part of the black experience in America. The orchestration by William Grant Still amplifies what has been both admired and critiqued in commentary about the Florence Price revival, that her music tends to be a bit derivative of Dvořák, or alternatively a synthesis of Dvořák and early Aaron Copland with a touch of ragtime. But the middle movement in particular, called “Tropical Noon,” was a beautiful and subtly syncopated picture of summer peace, lushly delivered by Noseda and the orchestra.

The concert’s finale was Duke Ellington’s reworking of five movements of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite, in an orchestration by Billy Strayhorn and Jeff Tyzik. Ellington’s clever feints toward bi-tonality before returning to big-band jazz chords make this a welcome and entirely valid entry for 20th century classical programs. However, the lower half of many alto saxophone lines do tend to get lost among the symphonic forces and it might have been helpful if the percussionist on the drumset had provided more variety than is written in the score, as the line became attention-grabbing in a rather monotonous way.

Elsewhere during the evening, Johann Strauss Jr.’s Tales from the Vienna Woods and Stravinsky’s Circus Polka were perfectly enjoyable entries between the more notable and unique works. Piazzolla’s Libertango didn’t seem to work as well for symphony orchestra as in many other tighter arrangements, losing some of its freshness and its diverting elements. And while living Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin has delivered many delights, his Two Tangos after Albéniz were not really additive to the overall impression.

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