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Between Silence. Eschenbach's Debut as Music Director Designate

Thanks, as always, to Robert R. Reilly, who lent us his ears again for the following review. You can read his regular classical music column for Crisis Magazine at Inside Catholic.

Barely audibly, Christoph Eschenbach debuted as Music Director Designate (he begins full time in the fall) of the National Symphony Orchestra with Verdi’s Requiem on Thursday evening, March 11th. By barely audibly, I mean, of course, the pianissimo in the strings that begins Verdi’s faux-sacred masterpiece. Eschenbach caught these gentle strains as if something had just expired in our presence. It worked because he had imposed silence before he began; or rather he began with silence. Nearly an hour and a half later, he came back to silence again. Prolonged silence–the kind in which one stays when one has encountered the last things. Silence that was eventually broken by genuine standing ovations. This massive, extraordinary piece of liturgical opera was presented with the kind of immense concentration required to achieve what Verdi intended it to do–show us the terrors of death and sneak a gleam of redemption.

In between Eschenbach’s sentinels of silence, the Washington Chorus sang- and the National Symphony Orchestra played their hearts out. Together, they achieved magnificence and heartbreak, terror and tears. The heft and drama were there for the Dies irae, and the Tuba mirum was caught spectacularly with the trumpet answering antiphonally from up on the third-level balcony stage right. The effect was electrifying. It was the range of expression in the chorus and orchestra, however, which impressed throughout. Jauvon Gilliam, making his NSO debut as principal timpanist, displayed deftly what piano sounds like on a bass drum. His partner, Charles Wilkinson, showed its power.

Of course, the success of the Requiem also requires a stellar quartet of soloists. This is mostly had with soprano Twyla Robinson, mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Nikolai Schukoff, and bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin. I would distinguish the soloists by those who were singly beautifully and those who were singing for their souls. When Robinson began, I thought her vibrato might bother me, but it never did. In the Quid sum miser trio, her voice soared. She wasn’t show-boating, she was praying. She sang with complete conviction and passion. She was exquisite in the Offertorio and when she delivered, in parlando style, the last full statement of Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda of the Requiem, it was chilling.

Fujimura deployed her dark, smoky voice with equal conviction, if not quite the same clear diction as Robinson. She was especially outstanding in the Tuba mirum and in her trio with the men in the last part of the Lux aeterna. The substantial difference in the timbres of her voice and Robinson’s gave their duets a special quality. Though slight in appearance, the Wagner-steeled Fujimura displayed her ample power.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Weak vocal soloists mar NSO's, Washington Chorus's Verdi Requiem (Washington Post, March 12)

Charles T. Downey, Christoph Eschenbach Off to a Rough Start at NSO (DCist, March 15)

Tim Smith, Eschenbach serves notice of exciting era to come with National Symphony (Baltimore Sun, March 15)
Tenor Schukoff’s voice took on special expression at the Hostias in the Offertorio, which made for one of the most moving moments of the evening. He, too, was praying. In this movement he was followed immediately by bass-baritone Nikitin, who was obviously not praying. The contrast did not favor Nikitin, who also seemed to lack sufficient vocal weight to bring off his part. That undermines the stereotypes about Russian basses, but perhaps age will further deepen his bass range and power. He was stronger in the Lux aeterna, which was also the first movement in which he sang expressively.

Eschenbach moves lithely. Back in the days he greatly admired Herbert von Karajan, he never emulated his minimalist conducting style. Nor is he dramatic in the vainglorious vein of Leonard Bernstein. He has a fluid and clear manner that seems to connect the score directly with orchestra. This was an auspicious, impressive promise of the things to come from our new Music Director. Welcome to Washington, Maestro.

The Requiem repeats on Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

1 comment:

Martin Hackleman said...

Thanks for your intelligent, cogent review of our concert. We are impressed with Maestro Eschenbach. We tend to look with suspicious eyes but what we see so far is genuine understanding, respect, an elegant maturity. An orchestra is like a race horse - it can always move but only wins with a jockey that respepcts its strength and knows when to let it sing. Wish us luck.
Cheers, Marty Hackleman