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Berg, Beethoven, and Eschenbach

The National Symphony Orchestra offered a satisfying evening of music making Friday under the fresh leadership of Music Director Christoph Eschenbach. Eschenbach’s resourceful programming, balanced conducting, and respectful rapport with the musicians will hopefully continue to improve future programs and the consistent overall musical quality of the NSO. Ranging from conducting that was mostly close to his core, to his walloping extended softball pitch, Eschenbach’s silky, black Nehru jacket revealed the slightest motion of the shoulder, which helped reinforce his musical demands in a program of Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra , and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Symphony No. 5.

The orchestra dug into Berg’s compelling Praeludium, a palindrome, yet lacked sufficient Romantic sweep and legato, while the brass were most expressive in the Reigen piece. The active and complex Marsch showed the colors of all sections with the timpani later pronouncing the motif of the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, again tossed around in top form by the fiery brass. The large -- giant -- hammer (großer Hammer mit nichtmetallischen Klang, according to the score) failed to make a large enough crack with the bass drum at the end to evoke the atmosphere of anxiety that likely pervaded the time when this piece was composed, at the onset of World War I. It was satisfying to have the program open with a serious, extended work that had a connection to the second half of the program.

Generously showcasing the home team -- NSO concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, principal cellist David Hardy, and principal keyboardist Lambert Orkis -- gave a charming reading of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. Hardy’s cello tone in the upper range resonated most beautifully, while Bar-Josef’s somewhat narrow tone sometimes got lost in the big room along with the muddy piano with which Orkis had to work. Chamber-like moments when the trio did not overplay were most convincing along with beautifully communicated transitions that frequently involved eye contact and a smile. The briskly spinning final Rondo alla Polacca movement showed outstanding technique and ensemble from all on stage.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Showcasing the NSO 'family' (Washington Post, January 28)

Terry Ponick, Triple Concerto, triple delight (Washington Times, January 28)

Mike Paarlberg, Berg & Beethoven at the Kennedy Center (Washington City Paper, January 28)
The NSO’s last performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, in 2007, was a flop. This uplifting 2011 performance brought conviction and fluent sweep without any self-consciousness. Eschenbach’s accented releases of the fourth note of the famous motif were quite memorable and foretold of excitement to come. The victorious sense of discovery in the final movements showed the orchestra both at their most nimble and most expansive. Eschenbach met what the orchestra could offer on their own and confidently shaped it into something coherent, while never becoming oppressive or controlling, even if the accelerando near the end was a bit frumpy. Overall, he lifted the orchestra to a new level for a proud full house.

Guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda will lead the next NSO program (February 10 to 12), combining music by Smetana and Tchaikovsky with pianist Radu Lupu playing Beethoven's third piano concerto.

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