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Widmann Shy of the Mark

Christoph Eschenbach has many tricks up his sleeve, concert ideas that he brings to new cities as music director or guest conductor. Washington is benefiting from the best of those ideas, in the second season of Eschenbach's tenure at the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra. The invitation he gave to German Wunderkind Jörg Widmann, who offered both his skills as clarinetist and a recent composition on this weekend's concerts with the NSO, heard on Saturday night, could have been among them but did not quite make the cut, in spite of being generally pleasing.

The bizarre appeal of the glass armonica, Benjamin Franklin's nutty invention to systematize the humming sound of glasses filled with water, may have been enough to draw people in to Widmann's piece Armonica, premiered in 2007 by Pierre Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic, but not to sustain it. Widmann could not quite decide if the piece was a sort of concerto for glass armonica, played nondescriptly here by Christa Schönfeldinger, or an orchestral evocation of the ethereal sound of the instrument. It failed in the former, since the glass armonica was mostly inaudible except in a few places where it was basically playing by itself. In the latter the piece had greater success, a shifting color exercise with all sorts of evocative sounds -- groans of brass glissandi, tidal rushes of air blown pitchlessly through the wind instruments, percussive clips from the strumming of the harp strings above the pegs, the bloom of accordion (basically a second soloist, seated in the front row) and bowed vibraphone, plus a host of exotic percussion. It would make a nice textbook explanation of several orchestral effects, but ingenious orchestration is not worth much without equally ingenious melodic, harmonic, and formal qualities. It is so important for the NSO to be playing new music, and like most new pieces heard throughout music history, this is likely the first and last time one will hear the work.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Clarinetist Joerg Widmann shows off his composing skills with National Symphony (Washington Post, January 27)

Roger Catlin, Austrian violinist to play glass armonica with National Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, January 28)

Tim Smith, Austro-German feast from Eschenbach, NSO; Jorg Widmann dazzles in debut (Baltimore Sun, January 30)
Surprisingly, the NSO had not played Mozart's clarinet concerto, K. 622 -- complete and with clarinet as soloist -- since 1993, and the piece was represented admirably with Widmann on the solo part. Little complaints about his playing came to mind: an unpredictable sense of tempo that was more willful than fluid, some stickiness in the runs, the highest notes a little forced. Add this to the pile of Eschenbach's Mozart, idiosyncratic and possibly off-putting. The best part of the evening was saved for the second half, Schubert's ninth symphony, D. 944, last heard this past fall from Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Eschenbach, as expected, gave the work a broad emotional scope, following a soft rendition of the Andante introduction with an exciting ramp-up to the Allegro in the first movement.

Unusual melodies, like the mysterious trombone theme in the exposition, were drawn out, with plenty of wallop for the big heroic conclusion. The gargantuan second-movement funeral march had a heavy-footed solemnity, with a lush string serenade in the middle. There was an awkward clarinet squeak in this movement, but a nice soft horn call to signal the return to the march. The third movement was an intoxicated, whirling, fluttering dance, a little more stately in the trio, while the fourth movement had a percolating energy, slowed down a bit for the allusions to Beethoven's ninth symphony theme. Not the best Schubert ninth one could imagine, but one with some unexpected turns.

Eschenbach and the NSO go back to Beethoven this week, pairing the third symphony ("Eroica") with Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen, for twenty-three strings (February 2 to 4).

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