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national symphony ORCHESTRA in World Premiere

With the superficial season-opening festivities out of the way, the National Symphony Orchestra opened its season properly with its first subscription program last night. Two good programming trends from Christoph Eschenbach's first three seasons continued into his first: presenting pieces for their NSO debuts, and playing new contemporary works. Here, a Haydn symphony never before played by the NSO was paired with a world premiere, followed unfortunately by something far too familiar, the Saint-Saëns "Organ-Symphony." Again.

The centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of a new multimedia work by Roger Reynolds, george WASHINGTON, a sort of environmental soundtrack for a three-narrator text cobbled together from the letters and journals of the first American president. The commission came from the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, who specified the subject, with the NSO joining in the commission and providing the first performances. Reynolds tries to take the listener into Washington's world, with a harpsichord piece of the sort he liked to hear his step-granddaugher play, tracks of bird song and other noises recorded at Mount Vernon, and some video imagery of Washington's home, recorded through all four seasons, which was displayed on three large screens over the stage, each divided into panels as if one is looking through large-paned windows. The recorded sounds are sent around the room through surround-sound speakers, requiring the three actors to be amplified. It was a relief, at least, that a work by Reynolds was not grating or vexing, but it was one of the more dull and monotonous experiences, at over twenty minutes, in recent memory.

Sadly, the Antal Doráti years at the NSO, in the 1970s, were before I moved to Washington (and when I was still in short pants), so I missed out on that conductor's devotion to the symphonies of Haydn. They are works that have been undervalued at the Kennedy Center, with the same few symphonies turning up every once in a while, with the lion's share of the catalogue escaping notice. (I can recall hearing two Haydn symphonies from the NSO since the Haydn Year in 2009, but I may have missed some.) It was a delight, then, to see one of the relatively early symphonies, no. 21 (A major, composed in 1764), opening this concert, a slender piece that could have been easily overplayed by the vast number of string players Eschenbach had on the stage but, to his (and their) credit, was not. Smooth articulation and warm tone marked the first movement, with one truly sotto voce section that was delectably fragile, followed by a charmingly phrased second movement, its bubbly textures pierced by the calls of hunting-style horns. The tune of its menuet was copied, partially, by Mozart for the minuet of his Eine kleine Nachtmusik, although Haydn's version, which sort of peters out in a charming way, is more entertaining. The peppy finale is not one of Haydn's wittier pieces, a couple awkward leaps emphasized with sforzandi aside, but it was given a jovial cast here.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Roger Reynolds’s refreshing unconventional ‘george WASHINGTON’ (Washington Post, October 4)

Tim Smith, NSO premieres George Washington-inspired work for orchestra, narrators (Baltimore Sun, October 4)
Enough with the Saint-Saëns "Organ-Symphony" already -- Eschenbach turned to it last season, to dedicate the Concert Hall's new Rubenstein Family Organ last November, at the gala concert just last Sunday, and again in this program. Please use the comments box to compile your list of other pieces for orchestra and organ that would be useful in the future: at the top of my list would be James MacMillan's hallucinatory organ concerto A Scotch Bestiary, which I have already hoped is on Eschenbach's To-Do list. (Other candidates would include the organ concertos by Poulenc, Hindemith, and Hans Gál.) Eschenbach goosed the moderato tempos of the first and third movements, which had the added benefit of making the piece a little tighter and shorter. The slow movement, with the organ accompanying the luscious strings, with echoes of Wagner, was lovely, and throughout soloist William Neil was on the money, with a reader that was clearer, but also a bit drier, than that of Cameron Carpenter on Sunday.

This concert will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night (October 4 and 5, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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