Review of the July 5 concert of the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap

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It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate setting for Bedrich Smetana’s ‘Vltava’ (better known as ‘The Moldau’) than the Filene Center at Wolf Trap on Friday night, where heavy rains watered lawns and soaked the loyal audience who fought her way up the hill against small rivers that seemed to presage the river flutes of her introduction.

“Do I have garden seats?” a man asked an usher. “Do you think I would be here if I had lawn seats?”

“You’d be surprised,” she said.

It was wet, wet, hot. But despite the triple weather threat, the National Symphony Orchestra, led by Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, managed to make it a moment to remember.

Much of the credit goes to guest violinist Gil Shaham, whose centerpiece of Tchaikovsky’s terrific 1878 concerto (i.e. the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 35) was one of more expressive than I have ever heard. But more on that in a second.

Classical music abandons printed programs. We are not happy.

The NSO looked more professional than usual in their short-sleeved white polo shirts, ruffled sporadically in the breeze from oscillating fans scattered across the stage. And that business-casual vibe carried over into the music, which soared to heart-pounding heights throughout the night but never quite cracked through flat surface, often a non-negotiable compromise of amplified exterior acoustics. Like the weather, there is not much to do.

What the orchestra might have lost in detail, Yankovskaya tried to make up for in energy. And for the most part, she succeeded.

Last night was his NSO debut, replacing bandleader Ruth Reinhardt, who had to step down due to family issues. Yankovskaya, who is musical director of the adventurous Chicago Opera Theatre, was a perfect fit for this program of Smetana, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak (her “New World” symphony, No. 9 in E minor), balancing her ever-present tight control and ability often thrilling with wild abandon.

The ranks of the orchestra were slightly mixed with summer replacements and new faces (for me), which lent some of the evening’s efforts scruffy edges. But with the humidity, an air of gratitude and relief wafted over the Filene Center as those Smetana opening flutes sounded – gratitude both for the music and the shelter, but also for the clouds that part and the cool night, the rising ropes and the rustle of cicadas, the criss-crossing of the limelight and the moonlight, the giant plastic cups of the Moscow Mules. All good things about outdoor music.

“Vltava” was composed in 1874 as a tribute to Smetana’s homeland of Bohemia, riverside music meandering and paying homage to the titular river that runs through its countryside. That Smetana lost his hearing while composing the piece seems to be more than some obscure biographical enigma; as the piece unfolds, it is suspected to account for the music’s indulgence in meticulous performance. Sometimes it just seems visual.

Those details are best heard without birds, bugs and microphones, but Yankovskaya brought a welcome fluidity to her 14-minute run. She brought out the lugubrious notes by lightening the strings in translucent veils. And she let the climax of the final explode after turning up the heat. You half expected the scene to break out like a barrage.

Shaham took the stage amid his own storm of applause and inhabited Tchaikovsky’s equally beloved and feared concerto with the ease and agency of a lifelong tenant. Perhaps most astonishing about Shaham’s approach is his variety – and the variety of that variety. It’s not just Shaham’s feats of tonal bravery and idiosyncratic color that set his take apart, it’s the exquisite lyricism he brings to it.

He cut through the substantial allegro moderato like one might tell a favorite story – giving some details a polished glow, eliminating others, stretching some phrases into white-hot filaments of emphasis, drawing others in as naturally as we could breathe.

After the longest intra-movement applause I’ve ever heard (Shaham had to raise two fingers to indicate there were still a few more moves to do) and some extensive readjustments after practicing the first move, he moved on to the “Canzonetta: Andante”. which ceded much of its sonic real estate to the woodwind soundtrack, but showcased beautiful woodwinds and Yankovskaya’s watercolor talent on the strings.

The finale was as “allegro vivacissimo” as one could reasonably ask for on such a humid night, with Shaham demonstrating some of his most amazing fingers and speed. It’s so easy to get carried away by the virtuoso fireworks of this room, but Shaham’s hands are more than capable – they’re human.

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Yankovskaya’s challenge after a brief intermission was to regenerate that energy. And for all its familiar twists and indelible melodic timbres, I’m not sure Dvorak’s 1893 “New World” was the way to go. The tight control exercised by Yankovskaya in the Smetana (and inspired by Shaham in the Tchaikovsky) seemed absent in those closest to the evening, which often struggled to stay consistent.

The first movement (“Adagio — Allegro molto”) had beautiful textures, Dvorak’s familiar themes waking up in the strings before finding themselves in the woodwinds. Yankovskaya honed her tight turns and heightened her drama, but kept her tenderness intact and her heart pounding.

And maybe it was the heat or the humidity or just the late Friday night – I’m not going to lie, I’m usually in my pajamas by 10 a.m. – but the following moves seemed to run out of steam. The synchrony collapsed here, the energy plunged there. The music became diffuse, those nuances that detail Dvorak’s fascination with black musical vernaculars felt inarticulate, and what was meant to shine often felt, well, moody.

There were clear climaxes: the sawing, roaring horns and soaring strings towards the conclusion of the second movement were surprisingly appealing opposites. And the scherzo delivered a welcome crackle here and there. Yankovskaya managed to restore some of the thunder in the triumphant fourth movement (“Allegro con fuoco”). Unfortunately the sky had the same plans.

As the sky began to shake above the amphitheater, the scoops began to leap, the drops began to fall, and the standing ovation that burst from the rows quickly turned into a jogging procession toward the parkings. Things are rarely perfect on the outside, but without a doubt, they remain excellent.

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