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New Wind Blowing at the NSO

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Mahler, Symphony No. 4,
D. Upshaw, Cleveland Orchestra,
C. von Dohnányi
Christoph Eschenbach's home run streak in his first season with the National Symphony Orchestra continued this weekend, with a program of luscious, evocative pieces at the near edge of tonality. It was hardly the sort of program that should have turned audiences away, even with the name Webern on it, and there were not too many empty seats at the final performance on Saturday evening. The Webern selection was the brief Im Sommerwind, last heard from the NSO two years ago, a glimpse into what might have been if Webern had not responded to Schoenberg's advertisement for students and followed his first inclinations toward Mahler and Strauss instead. (No, as Tim Smith overheard, it has nothing to do with the song A Summer Wind.) From the organ-like deep chords of the opening, to the shimmering chords and bird-wild trills, this is a compact piece with a vast tone poem-like sweep, with Mahler-esque chamber-like arrangements and much other orchestrational whizbangery. All those perfumed fin-de-siècle sighs and exhalations in the piece were inspired by a poem in Bruno Wille's book Revelations of a Juniper Tree (read an excerpt in these program notes -- .PDF file).

Does Osvaldo Golijov have too many commissions on his plate? He already had a reputation for pushing deadlines to the last possible minute, but this year and last he has had to cancel the premieres of some new pieces -- for the Los Angeles Philharmonic (twice) and the St. Lawrence String Quartet -- because he could not complete them on time. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has a "new work" by Golijov (title TBD) on its schedule this year (June 2 to 5) but hopefully the trend will not continue there. [Although the information is not on the BSO Web site yet, the piece in question is Sidereus, which was premiered last fall in Memphis. -- Ed.] The Golijov on the NSO program was She Was Here, commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2008 and dedicated to the memory of Anthony Minghella. Beloved soprano Dawn Upshaw, who premiered the work, was back in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, sounding perhaps less angelic than in previous hearings but more intense and musically sensitive. The melodies, most of them, are Schubert's, because the piece is essentially only an orchestration of four Schubert Lieder. This is not meant to disparage the work, which had some magical effects, but it reinforces my belief that Golijov is in the wrong place in the concert hall and should instead be writing evocative film scores. He has a fine vocabulary of Holstian celesta twinkles, chimes, glassy harmonics, and glints of bowed crotales to work with.

Other Articlews:

Anne Midgette, Eschenbach conducts Webern, Mahler and Golijov (Washington Post, April 8)

Tim Smith, Exquisite music-making from Eschenbach, Upshaw, National Symphony (Baltimore Sun, April 9)

Terry Ponick, Upshaw, Eschenbach, NSO in late-Romantic quest (Washington Times, April 9)

Emily Cary, Dawn Upshaw takes stage with National Symphony Orchestra (Washington Examiner, April 6)
The main attraction was a joyous, even raucous performance of Mahler's fourth symphony (see our notes on performances by Bernstein, Zinman, Alsop). Here, as in the earlier pieces, Eschenbach's ideas seemed fully formed from the first downbeat, buoyant and flexible with the pacing, sorting out the many transitions with no stumbles: this being the third performance of the program probably did not hurt the execution, either. You can get an idea of Eschenbach's ideas for the work in his performance with the Orchestre de Paris, available in an online video. The first movement was genially paced, taking the tempo marking "Nicht eilen" at face value, and the second more stately then macabre (again "ohne Hast"), with concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef sounding properly a little raw and steely on the scordatura violin solo. The slow movement was more peaceful than merely slow, with the pianissimo strings, sounding malleable and warm, creating a downy pillow of sound. The fourth movement's homey vision of heaven, where St. Cecilia is the Kapellmeisterin, again highlighted Upshaw's round-toned voice, allowed plenty of space by Eschenbach and the musicians who kept their sound in hushed wonder at the crucial moments. A long and deserved silence at the conclusion was punctuated by a perfectly timed cell phone ringing at the back of the hall.

1 comment:

Martin Fritter said...

I heard the Golijov Lorca thing (the name of which eludes me) rather badly played by a local orchestra but with a more than competent singer (name also gone) and thought he should be writing opera. I also though "Puccini." The vocal writing was good, the sense of characterization was excellent. The orchestral writing was so-so.