Nonstop Ivory-Tinkling: National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, December 3, 2009
19,615. That’s how many notes are in the solo part of Jennifer Higdon’s piano concerto, as the composer told conductor Andrew Litton in a brief, fun onstage interview just before the concerto’s world premiere at Thursday’s National Symphony Orchestra concert. What does 19,615 (a number known only through the magic of computers) mean? Well, later, Higdon said she would be pulling for the pianist, 22-year-old Yuja Wang, because “I realize this is like an Olympic sport.” Even the dense (me) in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall eventually got the idea: This concerto has more notes in it than most.
It certainly seemed like you could hear every one of them on Thursday. Wang, who possesses both formidable technical address and a musically inquisitive mind, played as cleanly and with as much brio several thousand notes into the concerto as she did at the outset, and Litton expertly integrated the piano’s sound with the orchestra, crucial to Higdon’s conception of the concerto. If this were indeed an Olympic event, the musicians would have medals around their necks right now. Unfortunately, it was a musical event, and Higdon’s writing in this work won’t win any prizes.
Admittedly, a lot of people did stand up and cheer the concerto on Thursday, but the warm reception mystified me. Here’s what Higdon has in the concerto, from this first listen:
1. A few passages of slow, pure tonal chords, out of which melodies blossom. This music sounded almost exactly like piano-bar jazz, with banal harmonization. During these passages, I kept looking for the cup on Wang’s Steinway into which I could deposit my tip. The melodic materials here informed the
2. Endless, endless skeins of quick flowing notes, runs up and down the keyboard, rippling, cresting, cascading, rising, falling, hither, yon, etc. (19,615!) These made the piano sound like the person in the cubicle next to yours who never, ever shuts up, causing you to tune out said neighbor even on topics of interest; similarly, interesting textural and harmonic moves Higdon made during these passages washed away quickly from the mind, lost in the showers. During these piano passages, I looked to the orchestra for melodic material or some kind of spectacular timbral flourish of the kind for which Higdon is justly celebrated, and only rarely did she provide any of either. I’m still not sure what was supposed to be happening during most of the first and second movements — whether anything was supposed to be happening, in fact, other than the pallidly pretty stasis-in-motion Wang so expertly conjured.
Frankly, these parts seemed inspired by a single-voice instrument (Higdon started as a flutist) rather than something with the manifold capabilities of the piano; you don’t wish for other notes when it’s a violin rhapsodizing above chords, but somehow a pianist touching all 88 keys but only one or (at most) two at a time sounds thin.
3. The piano acting as a percussive instrument. There needed to be a lot of this to balance #2, but Higdon rarely went to it. Thinking of Liszt afterward (as I did), you remember how a real piano composer balances the ornament and filigree of the runs with distinct, authoritative (even if reserved) melodic statements or at the very least different kinds of virtuoso doings. That mostly didn’t happen here.
The third movement held the most interest; Higdon knows how to write socko finales, and here she deployed some pointillistic solo percussion as a texture for the piano to infiltrate and then dominate. Heck, she even broke up some of Wang’s runs with percussive statements in the non-running hand, thus further emphasizing just how fast (and clean) these runs were and making them exciting rather than soporific. That was fun. Higdon needed to do more of that.
I am still 100 percent behind Higdon, most of whose works I really enjoy. Let’s hope this is the Dvorák piano concerto (do not let anyone convince you the Dvorák piano concerto is good) in what ends up being her Dvorák-quality (or better!) career.
Somewhat oddly, Litton and the NSO bracketed this 21st-century American premiere with two 19th-century Russian works having something to do with winter. (Thanks for reminding us, guys!) Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov’s little-heard suite from the opera The Snow Maiden started us off, and if you think I wasn’t excited about that, you don’t know how obsessed I am with Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral music. Indeed, hearing the suite in live performance illuminated many lovely facets of R-K’s always-intoxicating orchestration. Unfortunately, Litton and the NSO had evidently not rehearsed the music enough to perform it properly, with super-mushy ensemble from the strings and really bad tempo desynchronizations between brass and strings especially marring the performance. Perhaps this will be fixed tonight and Litton and the NSO will do justice to some really neat music.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor, “Winter Daydreams,” which came after intermission, makes some of the more clichéd moves in the whole symphonic literature, complete with a repeated fugato in the overstuffed finale. In Litton’s hands, though, Tchaikovsky’s predictable manipulations nevertheless delivered rousing entertainment, sort of the musical equivalent of watching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Commando” and both laughing at and thoroughly enjoying the tropes of the genre.
Litton also got some fine playing from the NSO; the big themes sang out marvelously, particularly when the bassoon and oboe floated the slow movement’s melancholy melody over a bed of strings, with a flute providing ornaments. Litton had a good feel for how to approach the Scherzo’s occasionally square development, and if you didn’t like the explosion of brass at the end, you probably don’t like minor-key Romantic symphonies at all. If you do, though, you’ll like Litton and the NSO performing this one.
PEOPLE/THINGS THAT ARE HOT
You know how Yuja Wang’s publicity photos all look super-cute? Well, maybe you don’t spend as much time as I do looking at Yuja Wang’s publicity photos. But from my seat she appeared to be just as cute in person. So yay. Interestingly, Google’s first search suggestion when you search on “yuja wang” is “yuja wang boyfriend.” (Apparently she has one.) So I’m definitely not the only person who has noticed this.
As the audience settled into its seats for the Tchaik, there arose in the Concert Hall the sulfurous aroma of struck matches. That was pretty mysterious. Was someone trying to clutch close a little heat before the onslaught of additional cold in the “Winter Daydreams”? It subsided about when Litton picked up the baton again.
Other reviews: Anne Midgette, Robert R. Reilly, Tim Smith. I really enjoyed reading everyone else’s perspectives on this one. I’m a bit shocked that I was the only one to really dislike a Jennifer Higdon piece, but that’s why they perform the concerts; if you knew what you were going to like at every concert, you’d just stay home and imagine it. Or at least I would. There’s very little marginal utility for me in taking the Metro to Foggy Bottom-GWU and walking to the big white box unless I don’t quite know what’s going to happen.
Edited to add a couple more reviews: Charles T. Downey, T.L. Ponick. Downey adds some interesting background info on the concerto that I had not known, so that’s definitely worth a look for the curious.