Concert Review: NSO’s Blast of Spring

I love the French horn.

But it has to be one of the most difficult, unreliable, wobbly instruments in the ensemble. In most (rare-ish) cases of a missed entry or high note, a ‘whoops’ of loss of tone or control, the horn is at fault, not the oboe or even the trumpet, especially in the writing of Mahler, Bruckner, and Strauss. So to see and hear someone (do the kind of acrobatics called for in the first horn concertos of Strauss and Mozart was really something. But not a surprise though, because, you know, Radek Baborak…

The night began with Weber’s Oberon overture, a piece I couldn’t help but think was a good introduction but also a bit… plain (?) for any first timers in the audience. “Yeah, this is what I expect classical music should sound like.” But it was clear and crisp and light, and the title of the concert, ‘Blast of Spring’, felt instantly appropriate, like looking up at a clear sky of stars behind an outline of tree branches.

Arming was energetic, pedal-to-the-medal, the opposite of gun-shy, which was encouraging, not the typical hesitant guest conductor. At times he looked like he was Samson pushing the columns around him down, others like an invisible assailant was wrenching his wrist, at least when he wasn’t squatting down to reach eye level with his score. Many of his movements were slightly idiosyncratic, but not superfluous, meaningful but natural. My fellow concergoer said “The conductor dropped a lot of things during the concert.” It did indeed look like he was kneeling that far down.

After the opening amuse bouche of sorts, we got our first look at Baborak. Confident but seemingly soft-spoken in his gestures and appearance, like the presence of a five-star chef. No shifting around, no tuning, almost before the applause had ended Strauss’s first downbeat came.

Strauss was beyond bucolic,Austrian, friendly, warm and welcoming. The solo horn part seemed effortless, reaching from warm bold fortes to the mildest, distant full-bodied pianos, no tremble, no hesitation. The orchestra followed suit, dropping to sudden nothingness when Arming dropped nearly to his knees at the podium. Mendelssohn and German music in general come to mind, a young, lively, ambitious Strauss, who should have written more horn concerti, but even here we hear (or I do) the things that make his music so noteworthy: color, vibrance, excitement, even in a more classical, reserved manner, they are still apparent. Fabulous performance.

After the break, we get Mozart; Arming’s baton disappears, and I question if he’d had one at all. The Mozart is even more polite, and less virtuosic, which is apparently due to Mozart’s horn player being of considerable age, but here perhaps because our soloist has already given us a very demanding work, even after 20 minutes of intermission.

I hear similarities between the works: a subdued style, highly virtuosic because it’s the French horn but not in an overwrought, pompous way. It’s virtuosic because of the control and warmth and tone and agility all perfectly executed throughout both works. And effortlessly, at that. Nothing in the performance by either the soloist or the orchestra felt weighed down or heavy, all expressive, light, but not overdone.

Everything up to that point had made for a rather light concert program, youthful, vernal music, no thunderstorms, or even really dark clouds. Bassoons called out with the solo horn with extreme beauty, flute solos, clarinet solos (our clarinet soloist[s] at the NSO truly exquisite lately!) all properly trimmed and brimming with vigor.

Baborak’s encore after the Mozart was like Bach wrote a partita for post horn to be performed in the mountains. Warm and heroic and bold, then distant and soft, but still full, alternating passages of near and far, like a superhero wearing a cape calling to a distant friend, who seemed to respond from miles away in a distant but still full-bodied, warm tone. Very horn-like.

The meatiest piece on the program was Schumann’s first symphony, the ‘spring’ one. It was carefree and wild, youthful and energetic, but somehow a bit muddled. Small detail that I know from the work was apparently missing or clouded. Arming conducted with passion and freeness (and the return of the baton), but there seemed something off-kilter about the work, perhaps phrasing or balance.

I know the piece like I know an unfamiliar coworker. Sure you can identify them, and you know a bit about their personality, that they’re friendly and like foreign films and drink smoothies every morning for breakfast but have an insatiable hunger for potato chips (or whatever), but don’t really know them. That’s my relationship with the Schumann. I remember being very pleased listening to the work repeatedly, but never really being compelled to revisit it ever. So when I heard it again tonight (live, for the first time) it was pleasantly familiar in that “Ah! I remember this” way, but…. not exactly the way I remember it. There was a youthful freeness of expression that was indeed invigorating, but it seemed to be at the expense of some degree of exactness or clarity. Maybe I’m wrong, and/or used to studio-quality exactness and balance.

In any case, first ever live horn concertos for me, and a rather light program overall. I guess that’s not so much the case for Baborak, giving us two concertos back to back. That was a treat, and it was nice to end the evening with some more crunch and heft from Schumann.

I’ll be seeing Baborak’s former colleagues in just under a month when the Berlin Philharmonic plays on the very same stage. Stay tuned!


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