Soprano Madison Leonard, a member of the Domingo-Cafritz program at the Washington National Opera who won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, had an affecting solo with the NSO on this week’s program. (Arielle Doneson)
By Anne Midgette Anne Midgette Classical music critic Email Bio Follow Classical music critic May 10

Say the name George Butterworth and American crowds aren’t likely to rush out to buy tickets. The Kennedy Center Concert Hall was rather sparsely attended Thursday for a National Symphony Orchestra program that opened with Butterworth’s Rhapsody for Orchestra, “A Shropshire Lad.” It was a shame, because those who weren’t there missed a lovely program, rich and colorful and shining with as many individual crystalline facets as a Byzantine mosaic.

Perhaps the NSO and other orchestras should do more two-and three-week mini-residencies with conductors. This was Mark Elder’s second consecutive week with the orchestra, and it took hold and connected as the first week didn’t entirely manage. It helped that the first half of the program, especially, was squarely in his wheelhouse. Conductors always like to teach orchestras new works, and both the Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s third, “Pastoral Symphony,” which followed it, were being played by the orchestra for the first time.

The program focused on composers who were active around World War I — the second half was two works by Maurice Ravel — and the British half had the elegiac tone one might expect from such a subject. Butterworth, who was killed in action in France in 1916, at age 31, wrote the piece before the war’s outbreak, but brought to it a keening, late-Romantic sensibility, the orchestra swelling and then suddenly dwindling to the voice of a single soloist, a singing violin; rising from nothing and falling back into nothing.

Vaughan Williams, Butterworth’s friend who survived the war, intended his “Pastoral” to be a memorial to the landscape the war ravaged. All of its movements are somber and thoughtful, and he, too, focused on individual voices within the orchestral mélange, like the vignette of a distant trumpet practicing, an actual snapshot (Elder told the audience, in his warm remarks from the podium) of something he heard during his own wartime service as an ambulance driver. The fourth movement was set off with wordless vocalises soaring in from offstage, sung by soprano Madison Leonard, a young singer with Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz program who not quite two weeks ago was one of five winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Her warm sound showed she deserved it.

All this orchestral richness and instrumental detail perfectly set up the work of Ravel, represented by the fine-painted tableaux of “Ma mere l’Oye” (Mother Goose) and by the second suite from “Daphnis and Chloe,” one of the biggest orchestral works of all. The NSO followed Elder with a will, with golden solos from violin and viola and flute bubbling like fountains up from the deep well of sound. The NSO has a similar mini-residency next season with conductor Nathalie Stutzmann. As this second week with Elder showed, it can be a very good idea.

The program repeats Friday morning and Saturday evening.