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NSO Opens Third Season with Eschenbach

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter
Our recommendation of the National Symphony Orchestra's Season Opening Ball Concert came with the caveat that such gala events rarely merit serious consideration. Christoph Eschenbach, who embarked on his third season as the NSO's music director on Sunday night, has made an effort to make this and his earlier gala concerts of at least some interest. He did that partly with his choice of soloist, German star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and partly by the choice of repertory, which was not (thankfully) the sort of fizzy pablum one generally hears at gala concerts. Well, mostly.

Mutter's two vehicles were split between the two halves of the concert, beginning with Mendelssohn's evergreen violin concerto (E minor, op. 64), a piece that she probably learned when she was a child and has played hundreds of times. Perhaps searching for a way to keep herself interested in such a familiar work, she turned in a performance that some would call eclectic, others merely weird. Her approach to the rhythmic pulse was mercurial, requiring Eschenbach to keep one foot on the brake and the other on the gas at all times, but it brought out many little gem facets in the piece. She has a growling tone on her instrument, biting with a burr's edge into the G string, creating folk fiddle-like effects, shining wanly at the top of the E string. The technical demands, especially in an astounding first-movement cadenza, were dispatched with little trouble, even though the third movement was pushed to a blistering speed. It was clearly too much to expect Mutter also to play Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy after the intermission, and the results were not up to her normal technical standard, with some sketchy double-stops and flawed intonation. Mutter was probably exhausted: she had played a similar season opener just the night before with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO opens with pretty sounds, fancy dresses, striking decor (Washington Post, October 2)
The good news is that the NSO sounds better and better, and Eschenbach took the ensemble for a spin in Beethoven's short, effervescent overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. With an energetic bite to the playing, it featured all sections well, except perhaps the violins in the endless runs of sixteenth notes. Even better was Strauss's suite from Der Rosenkavalier, which the NSO dusted off last spring, to take on their Central and South American tour. The piece now sounds wonderfully lived in, but not tired, with suave handling of the soft passages, without too much sugary wallowing, a surging passion in the love music, and waltzes that were not overly mannered but full of nostalgia. The highlights included splendid playing from the principal musicians, some new this season. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef soft-pedaled her normally buzzsaw-intense vibrato, in intimate company with the other solo strings. Acting principal horn player Laurel Bennert Ohlsson, formerly the associate principal player, whooped it up in the ecstatic horn calls of the opening, and acting principal flutist Aaron Goldman, formerly assistant principal, had some lovely turns, too. The battery, led by a new principal player, Eric Shin, did not all seem to be quite firing at the same rate at times, but only just enough to cause concern.

The NSO's regular season gets under way this week, with Christoph Eschenbach leading performances of music by Wagner and Tchaikovsky (October 4 to 6), with mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor joining for Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs.

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