This post was modified after publication, with a clarification provided by Patricia O'Kelly, the Managing Director of Media Relations for the NSO.
The program was another in the series of concerts without a high-profile soloist, giving us a chance to focus on the sound and temperament of the orchestra, who played with commitment and verve, signs of the ongoing rejuvenation of an ensemble that had lapsed just a bit into blandness through desuetude. A world premiere, a little firecracker bonbon by Sean Shepherd, the composer-in-residence with the Cleveland Orchestra, popped and crackled appropriately as a concert opener. It was hard to detect any signs of the fires of hell in Blue Blazes, which is one of the things the composer, in a charming and self-deprecating introduction to the work, indicated as an inspirational thought for the work. Opening with a pizzicato walking motif, the work percolated with a lot of ideas, punctuated with pseudo-Latin percussion touches (egg shaker, among others). Touches of Schoenberg-like chromatic atonal harmony permeated the second section, with a dreamy slow section featuring Bernstein-like wind writing and poetic violin solos, all of it shaped admirably by Eschenbach, before it returned to the opening ideas in the final measures. It was very much cut from the same cloth as the composer's Wanderlust, heard from the NSO last November, pleasing and skillfully compiled but probably not bound to endure.
Shepherd has said that he conceived the piece knowing that it would be introducing the other two works on this program, Richard Strauss's ebullient and tender suite from Der Rosenkavalier and Beethoven's seventh symphony, part of Eschenbach's ongoing Beethoven symphony cycle. The Strauss received a fine performance, better in many ways than the ill-fated one given by the Vienna Philharmonic earlier this spring with Lorin Maazel. Eschenbach led with a pleasingly elastic beat, so that the sighing motifs had a languid vitality but without distorting the waltz section too much with mannerism. He gave the brass section free reign, making for ecstatic horn swoops and some great crashes of sound, including a near-manic, circus-like atmosphere for the waltz's return at the work's conclusion, but protecting the soft passages, especially the solo sections, in a contained envelope of sound.
Anne Midgette, Christoph Eschenbach and National Symphony Orchestra are having fun (Washington Post, June 1)
Emily Cary, What in the 'Blue Blazes' (Washington Examiner, May 31)
This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night (June 1 and 2), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.