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June 26, 2009

National Symphony Orchestra, led by Andreas Delfs, offers soaring Strauss songs with Karita Mattila

Karita MattilaThe originally scheduled season-ending National Symphony program this week was to have included the orchestra's first performances of Strauss' Three Hymns and Rautavaara's Manhattan Trilogy, along with a more standard item by Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra. When Finnish-born conductor Mikko Franck had to cancel and German-born Andreas Delfs took the gig, only Zarauthstra remained on the lineup.

Losing those rarities is a pity, to be sure, but the revised program is eminently appealing nonetheless. For one thing, the substitution for Three Hymns is the same composer's Four Last Songs, and I'll never complain about hearing them; they're right up near the top of my absolute favorite pieces of music. And, happily, the soloist hasn't changed -- the striking Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who's plenty of a draw on her own. Taking the Rautavaara slot is ...

The Walk to Paradise Garden from the opera A Village Romeo and Juliet by Delius, repertoire that hardly comes around every day on local concert stages. Like I said, all very appealing.

So, for the most part, was the music-making Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center. (There will be repeats Friday and Saturday.)

Mattila's account of Strauss' swan songs was particularly impressive for the weight and solidity of her tone. Others may produce subtler shades in these pieces, but Mattila filled the concert hall with a gleaming sound the rode easily above the lush orchestration. And excellent breath control allowed her to sculpt long phrases with ease.

Andreas DelfsInterpretively, if a little more nuance would have been welcome, the soprano communicated the twilight-filtered texts quite powerfully just the same. Delfs handled his side of things persuasively; his spacious treatment of the orchestral close to Im Abendrot, that sublime, closing-of-the-eyes passage, gave particular pleasure. The NSO, fresh from its visit to China and Korea, encountered a rough patch or two, but produced a fundamentally rich sound and phrased with admirable expressive warmth. 

There was much to savor in Zarathustra as well. Delfs had the score unfolding vividly. The strings summoned a good deal of sheen and vibrancy; the woodwinds and brass did some very potent work. This was quite a hot performance that should get even tighter in the subsequent concerts.

It was delightful to hear the Delius score, which has its own nearly Straussian lyricism, with some Debussy-like refinement of palette. The composer deserves much more attention, and this gentle, unhurried performance offered a keen reminder of what we're missing.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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