Arts Desk

Martin Grubinger with the National Symphony Orchestra, Reviewed

grubingerWe get it, orchestra programmers. You figure if you’re going to put on something contemporary, you’ve got to sweeten the pot with a pair of ear-candy symphonies by Mozart and Dvořák. Because if you say "Hey, check out this concerto written in 2007 by someone you don’t know, played by someone else you don’t know on a weird cowbell contraption!" you’d get the same turnout Lungfish would get if they said "Hey, tonight’s concert is going to be all new material of Dan Higgs reciting poetry and playing a jaw harp!" Because you think we’re narrow minded. And you’d be right.

Which is too bad, because it shouldn't be that way. Nor need it be, given yesterday’s terrific performance of Avner Dorman’s Frozen in Time by percussionist Martin Grubinger which far outshone the standards—Mozart’s 35th and Dvořák’s 9th—that bookended it. The Israeli-born, U.S.-residing composer was in attendance on Thursday, and told me how struck he was by the focus of the Kennedy Center’s crowd to his concerto’s slow second movement: “It’s a sign of a very attentive audience,” he said, and the reception was warmer than he’d received in other cities. Score one for we philistines. Or, hold on. “Well I haven’t seen it performed in several years," he said, "so maybe I don’t remember.”

Frozen in Time is, in structure anyway, not terribly unorthodox for something less than a decade old, adhering to the three-movement, fast-slow-fast concerto framework. Its theme is a bit silly—“Pangaea”—which really just means Dorman wanted to throw in a bunch of musical references from around the world, none of which were around during the Mesozoic era anyway. And while the themes are grouped geographically by movement, there’s a certain randomness to their selection. Why jazz and tango for the Americas and not reggaeton and Bieber? Yet while incongruous, the varied styles do mesh, in a mostly thrilling piece that is at times grandiose, frantic, suspenseful, serene, and only occasionally boring (the latter in the linchpin second movement, a strangely peaceful interlude dedicated to the region, Eurasia, that gave us Charles Tilly’s bellicist state).

But it's the soloist, Grubinger, who breathes the piece to life, in a performance that spans 35 instruments (including things with names like darabuka, djembe, and the aforementioned contraption, which has the effect of a cowbell grenade launcher), played entirely from memory. The Austrian polyinstrumentalist dashes deftly around his percussive laboratory, banging on various drums and bells, all the while with a goofy grin on his face; he would be equally at home at a concert hall, Vegas floor show, or hibachi restaurant. Dorman’s concerto, a commission written for Grubinger, could have been a mess, veering from gamelan to grunge. But with Grubinger it is a coherent, tightly synchronized showcase of acrobatic skill.

Christoph Eschenbach dutifully leads the NSO in the two pieces everyone’s heard a whole bunch of times, putting in just enough personal touches (exaggerated lingers for Dvořák’s adagio theme, drawn out crescendos in the scherzo) to give you your money’s worth without rendering them unfamiliar. If, in comparison to Grubinger and Dorman, Mozart’s Haffner symphony felt small, it’s because it was: the much-reduced orchestra included just four cellos, pushed to the side to make room for the cowbell lab. Eschenbach balanced the dynamics nicely, from the chirps to the swells of the violins, which occupied nearly all of his attention, but the symphony couldn't help but feel like a placeholder. Dvořák's Bohemia-by-way-of-Harlem-and-Hiawatha symphony left a stronger impression, especially in the languid second movement and the slow buildup to that final, famous allegro that John Williams ripped off for everything he ever wrote from Jaws to Star Wars.

But really, you could listen to those at home. (Or just watch Jaws again.) Grubinger’s grinning contortion act is the main draw, so you probably want to skip the all-Dvořák “Beyond the Score” show on Friday from which Grubinger will be absent and wait till he returns on Saturday. Unless, you know, you really want the backstory on Dvořák and your Internet is down.

The program repeats on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $10-$85. There will be a standalone performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 preceded by a multimedia lecture on Friday, Jan.  24 at 8 p.m. $10-$50.

Photo by Felix Broede

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