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The Washington Post

Facing death, affirming life: Classical music’s yin and yang in one weekend

At the other extreme of the artistic spectrum was a program that deliberately set out to be a cornucopia of delights, and succeeded. The National Symphony Orchestra began its “Declassified” series of Friday-night concerts in 2015, hoping to lure new audiences with pop stars and shorter programs. The concerts were wildly uneven at first, but Ben Folds, the singer-songwriter who became its artistic adviser in 2017 has clearly been working with the orchestra to develop the concept. Friday night’s concert with Regina Spektor, the pianist-singer-songwriter, which admirably balanced orchestral and pop music without doing violence to either, showed that everyone’s efforts are paying off.

One reason the program succeeded so well is that the Russian-born Spektor, trained as a concert pianist, so clearly loves orchestral music; she seemed nervous and star-struck and starry-eyed about appearing onstage with the NSO, and her love was infectious. She picked one of the pieces on the program, the Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and told the audience, “To me this piece shows how amazingly the orchestra can rock your soul,” and the orchestra proceeded to demonstrate what she meant when James Gaffigan, the conductor, then plunged the players into the huge, menacing, aching chords at the beginning of the selection.

Another reason it succeeded is that the NSO, rather than offering music that pandered to the audience, played selections from its current program — including the first movement of Shostakovich’s 2nd piano concerto, with the soloist, Simon Trpceski, showing a lot more humor than he had the preceding night. But the audience got plenty of Spektor, too: She sang seven numbers, including “Dear Theodosia” from “Hamilton” in a duet with Folds that crossed several different genre boundaries: two pop stars singing a song from a hip-hop musical with a symphony orchestra.

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