The role of art during wartime usually revolves with broad strokes around reminding us of our humanity. Less so, perhaps, do we feel the strain put on the artist by ruling regimes, the subtle moments of defiance and camaraderie that emerge embittered yet hopeful. At the National Symphony Orchestra with conductor Simone Young making her Washington debut, a program turning around Benjamin Britten served as a provocative reminder of what lies beneath.

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Simone Lamsma
© Merlijn Doomernik

Britten’s Violin Concerto, which Simone Lamsma delivered with gusto, held the center of this three-work program. Written in 1939 for the Spanish expatriate Antonio Brosa, the concerto settles into an uncertain space, reflecting on the Spanish Civil War and anticipating World War 2. Aptly, the concerto demands a rare kind of stamina from its soloist, moving from long, slow bow strokes that must carefully measure melody to furious technical feats spanning the entire fingerboard – hammered double stops, sliding octaves, simultaneous left hand pizzicato and arco – before snapping back to an anxious serenity. Lamsma took on the challenge with a bright timbre, almost brassy against the percussion. Controlled but ardent, exuberant but vexed, she triumphed over its physical hurdles and demonstrated an innate understanding of the historical complexities undergirding the work.

Lamsma’s performance was certainly bolstered by an affinity with Young, who first set a solemn tone for the evening with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. The work, though short, requires restraint as it steadily grows from the opening bell into a powerful accumulation of sound and sense. While the final release wasn’t a clean break, the mood was undoubtedly on point. Composed in 1977, Pärt was in the midst of breaking free from his own national constraints when he wrote this tribute to Britten. 

By the concluding Shostakovich's Symphony no. 10 in E minor, Young had all but spelled out its gravity. As a conductor, she defines precision through fluidity with the occasional fit of passion. In the opening measures of the frenzied and darkly seething Allegro, Young kicked the air from a widely-braced stance – it was low and brief but effective. Like Britten’s concerto, the symphony calls for an uncommon fortitude to hold the bits and pieces of melody, style and orchestration together. Laden with signs and symbols (the third movement repeatedly spells out his initials, D-S-C-H in the German transliteration), its various movements are playful and dark, and its import is not for the faint-hearted. Young proved more than capable, exemplified by her deft navigation of the sneaking fugue opening the Allegretto. While the piccolos and flutes occasionally struggled with pitch, landing just a hair flat in some vitally exposed places in the Moderato and the Andante-Allegro, the oboe solos soared clear and bell-like through the uncertain mists that close the work.

It is hard to hold levity across such a meaty program, musically but also emotionally, and it’s an accomplishment that the NSO should celebrate in partnership with Young’s and Lamsma’s facility. There was no Bizet-esque snack here to quickly lighten the mood; when such a complex memorial unfolds in remembrance of artists at the site of war, that’s as it should be.