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


It’s hard to imagine a more fitting setting for Bedrich Smetana’s “Vltava” (better known to many as “The Moldau”) than the Filene Center at Wolf Trap on Friday night, where heavy rains doused the lawns and soaked the stalwart audience that fought its way up the hill against little rivers that seemed to presage the fluvial flutes of its introduction.

“Do I have lawn seats?” a man asked an usher. “You think I’d be here if I had lawn seats?”

“You’d be surprised,” she said.

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

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

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The NSO looked more workmanlike than usual in their short-sleeved white polos, sporadically rumpled in the breeze of oscillating fans scattered about the stage. And this business-casual vibe carried over into the music, which reached some thrilling heights throughout the night but never quite cracked through a flat surface, often a nonnegotiable compromise of amplified outdoor acoustics. Like the weather, there’s not much to be done about it.

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

Last night was her debut with the NSO, stepping in to replace conductor Ruth Reinhardt, who had to withdraw due to family matters. Yankovskaya, who serves as music director for the adventurous Chicago Opera Theatre, was a fine fit for this program of Smetana, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak (his “New World” symphony, No. 9 in E minor), balancing her ever-present tight control and her often thrilling capability for wild abandon.

The ranks of the orchestra were slightly shuffled with summer substitutes and new (to me) faces, which lent some of the evening’s efforts some scruffy edges. But along with the humidity, an air of gratitude and relief hung above the Filene Center as those opening flutes of the Smetana sounded — gratitude both for the music and the shelter, but also for the parting clouds and the cooling night, the rising strings and the whir of cicadas, the crisscross of footlights and moonlight, the giant plastic cups of Moscow Mules. All the good stuff about outdoor music.

“Vltava” was composed in 1874 as a tribute to Smetana’s homeland of Bohemia, the music’s riparian winding and wending an homage to the titular river that crosses its countryside. That Smetana was losing his hearing as he composed the piece seems like more than arcane biographical trivia; as the piece unfolds, one suspects it accounts for the music’s indulgence in meticulous depiction. At times it just sounds visual.

These details are best heard sans birds, bugs and microphones, but Yankovskaya brought a welcome fluidity to its 14-minute course. She brought out its mournful notes by lightening the strings into translucent veils. And she let the climax of the finale explode after building up the pressure. You half expected the stage to burst like a dam.

Shaham took the stage amid his own personal storm of applause, and inhabited Tchaikovsky’s equally loved and feared concerto with the ease and agency of a lifelong tenant. Perhaps most stunning about Shaham’s approach is its variety — and the variety of that variety. It’s not just Shaham’s feats of tonal derring-do and idiosyncratic color that distinguish his take, it’s the exquisite lyricism he brings to it.

He moved through the substantial allegro moderato the way one might tell a favorite story — giving some details a burnished glow, scrubbing others out, stretching certain phrases into white-hot filaments of emphasis, drawing others as naturally as one might draw a breath.

After the longest intra-movement applause I’ve ever heard (Shaham had to hold two fingers up to indicate there were still a couple of movements to go) and some extensive retuning after the first movement’s workout, he downshifted into the “Canzonetta: Andante” which surrendered much of its sonic real estate to the soundtrack of the woods, but which showcased lovely woodwinds and Yankovskaya’s watercolor skill over the strings.

The finale was as “allegro vivacissimo” as one could reasonably ask for on such a muggy night, with Shaham demonstrating some of his most astonishing fingerwork and speed. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the virtuosic fireworks of this piece, but Shaham’s hands are more than capable — they’re human.

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Yankovskaya’s challenge after a quick-ish intermission was to regenerate that energy, And for all of its familiar twists and turns and indelible melodic stamps, I’m not sure Dvorak’s 1893 “New World” was the way to go. The tight control marshaled by Yankovskaya in the Smetana (and inspired by Shaham in the Tchaikovsky) seemed absent in the evening’s closer, which often struggled to cohere.

The first movement (“Adagio — Allegro molto”) showcased some beautiful textures, Dvorak’s familiar themes awakening in the strings before finding their way into the woodwinds. Yankovskaya sharpened its sharp turns and heightened its drama, but kept its through-line of tenderness intact and its heart beating.

And maybe it was the heat or the humidity or just the late-Friday-nightness of it all — not gonna lie, I’m usually in pajamas by 10 — but the subsequent movements seemed to lose steam. Synchrony slumped here, energy dipped there. The music grew diffuse, those nuances that detail Dvorak’s fascination with Black musical vernaculars felt unarticulated, and what was supposed to gleam often felt, well, glum.

There were clear high points: The sawing, lowing horns and climbing strings toward the second movement’s conclusion were stunningly attractive opposites. And the scherzo did deliver some welcome sizzle, 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 heavens began to rattle above the amphitheater, bailers started bailing, drops started falling, and the standing ovation that burst from the rows quickly ebbed into a jogging procession toward the parking lots. Things are seldom perfect outdoors, but without a doubt, they remain great.

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