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NSO Is Packing Its Bags

This post was modified after publication, with a clarification provided by Patricia O'Kelly, the Managing Director of Media Relations for the NSO.

Christoph Eschenbach is coming to the end of his second season with the National Symphony Orchestra, and the news continues to get better. The ensemble's latest program, heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, featured some of the pieces being readied for their upcoming tour of Central and South America, the group's first international tour in quite some time and an ambitious undertaking in an era when this sort of large-scale tour is less and less common. The NSO and its audience gave a warm ovation to three stalwarts in its membership, who will all be retiring at the end of this season: principal flutist Toshiko Kohno, the cellist David Howard, and principal percussionist F. Anthony Ames, all of whom have given three or four decades of service to the group. Along with principal horn player Martin Hackleman, who will retire resign at the end of next this season, that leaves a substantial number of seats to fill, more canvas for Eschenbach to paint on.

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.

Other Articles:

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)
The Beethoven was more mannered and therefore less successful, but with much to admire along the way. The first movement seemed lethargic, or perhaps intentionally deliberate and insistent for the tempo marking of Vivace. With such a large number of strings seated, it made some sections too heavy with this approach, like the leaden turbulence of the recapitulation, where there is all that activity on the dotted-note motif. By contrast, the second movement had a good sense of movement to it, with careful attention to dynamic contrasts, like the pianissimo repeats of many sections. The third movement was not too fast, which can happen in some performances, and the trio, slowed down considerably, had the feel of a nostalgic, pastoral horn call across an Alpine valley. The finale brimmed with brio, capping what many, myself included, consider to be Beethoven's best contribution to the classical symphony. The NSO also got to try out an encore piece for the tour, surprising the swaths of people who make an early exit to the parking garage: the "Bohemian Dance" from Bizet's Carmen, which could use a little more rehearsal to get it to a diamond-like polish.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night (June 1 and 2), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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