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Review | NSO takes on Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and the racket of the audience

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On Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, I watched one of the most charismatic conductors I’ve seen all year lead the National Symphony Orchestra in one of the most energetic performances I’ve heard all season.

I also experienced one of the most disruptive, poorly behaved audiences of which I’ve ever been a part — and I have a background in mosh pits. Certain attendees of the evening’s program (which welcomed guests conductor Kazuki Yamada and pianist Stewart Goodyear) seemed intent on making the work of the musicians more difficult than it already is.

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So, which would you like to hear about first?

Well, too bad, because we’re starting with Yamada, who led the NSO with a mix of finesse and electricity. He’s a full-body kind of conductor, very tiptoes-to-fingertips. Even his eyebrows did some heavy lifting in the opener — Glazunov’s Concert Waltz No. 2 in F — imparting welcome softness and buoyancy to the strings that made the waltzes shimmer.

Yamada, originally from Japan and now based in Berlin (and soon to embark on a new role as chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England), seemed at ease switching between the modes and moods of the rest of the evening’s program: a demanding pairing of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto and Rachmaninoff’s second symphony.

Yamada’s nimbleness made him a fine fit with guest pianist Stewart Goodyear, whose incisive attack of Tchaikovsky’s 1874 concerto made for one of the most memorable performances of it I’ve ever seen. Goodyear is a player of multiple personalities: His body bowed tight through the first movement — a gargoyle hammering octaves. He lent tenderness to the staccatos of the second and imbued its dizzying runs with painterly depth. And he seemed to disappear completely into the cadenzas of the finale, his playing crisp, lively and hungry.

The crest of its finish was met with four standing ovations, which Goodyear rewarded with a short encore, the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in C minor (“Pathetique”), played with such grace it had to be more than a goodbye.

It actually felt like a gesture of forgiveness for the audience’s multiple disruptions to his performance (our applause, too, felt slightly boosted by a spirit of penance). At the feather-light conclusion of the second movement, the uninvited melody of a ringtone cried out, and the whole hall cringed as Goodyear cast a look of fatherly disappointment over the rows. Another person had their phone set to ring like an old-school landline at full volume, and when it inevitably did, the effect was Hitchcockian.

Each movement of the concerto, in fact, as well as each movement of the Rachmaninoff symphony that would follow, was marred in some way by smartphones, the dropping of smartphones, the dropping or kicking over of other objects, audible conversations (??), full-on eating (according to one witness), and other strangely conspicuous violations of basic concert protocol.

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Between interruptions, the Rachmaninoff was a showcase of Yamada’s powers at the podium — watching him awaken the mounting storm at the end of its long first movement was immensely satisfying. He brought freedom and ease to the third movement adagio (a favorite of any Eric Carmen fan). And he smiled through the soaring finale, summoning its cresting melodies like great waves — the symphony awash in memories of itself.

The performance also was a credit to Yamada and the NSO’s ability to remain on task and stay focused. Not all of us fared so well.

Certainly the Kennedy Center itself must take some responsibility for a hall that’s beginning to sound like a T-Mobile showroom. Its insistence on digital programs means that most of the phones in the place will remain on throughout the evening, despite the gentle pleas of a prerecorded voice in the lobby requesting the opposite.

I have to wonder whether another factor in the shaggy behavior of Thursday’s audience was related to the recent allowance of beverages from the bar into the Concert Hall, as long as said beverages are contained (per a sign in the lobby) in “Kennedy Center Lidded Cups.”

Inch, meet mile: Before the concert even began, the rail in front of my row was littered with branded plastic tumblers of merlot and chardonnay. (Isn’t this what intermission is for? Tacky.)

For those catching Friday and Saturday’s repeats of the program (and you should), this would be a great time to practice muting. Meanwhile, I’m hoping that the Kennedy Center is figuring out a way to serve their patrons without sabotaging their artists. Put another way: The audience can’t be left to their own devices.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2; Stewart Goodyear plays Tchaikovsky repeats Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.



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