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NSO Opens Fourth Season with Eschenbach

A gala performance, like the National Symphony Orchestra's annual Season Opening Ball concert, is often dangerously close to a pops concert. Christoph Eschenbach, at the start of his fourth season as the NSO's Music Director, has mostly avoided that pitfall in his first three seasons. His fourth season opener, heard on Sunday evening in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, veered dangerously close to that edge, especially in the second half, but remained an event just as much about the ears -- as well as a big social event that raised $1.3 million for the NSO. The smell of paint, a new coat of cream color that has lightened the room considerably, was still discernible, from work finished over the summer -- fortunately, as Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein joked in his post-intermission remarks, completed before the Federal government was shut down.

The NSO musicians were featured in a couple of blockbuster showpieces, neither of them performances with much to remember. Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet is far from the sort of trivial overture often used to open such concerts, but with enough famous tunes to please a crowd. As required, the fast bits were thrilling, with climactic sweeps of sound, and Eschenbach kept the slow parts from wallowing in syrup. On the second half, Bizet's second suite from Carmen served much the same purpose, with the added benefit of featuring some principals in beautiful solos: especially trumpeter Steven Hendrickson, bold of tone in the Habanera and Toreador Song, a fine piccolo duet in the children's chorus from Act I, and concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, surprisingly demure in Micaëla's aria from Act II.

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Anne Midgette, Christoph Eschenbach leads NSO in gala opener with Yo-Yo Ma, Cameron Carpenter (Washington Post, October 1)
Gala concerts are really about soloists, of course, musical stars with whom donors can hobnob at dinner. This concert featured the biggest of them all, arguably the most famous classical musician alive, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as soloist in Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme. It is not exactly a substantial piece, but Ma brought a velvety tone and understated phrasing to its lovely slow parts. Some of the quicker details were a little fuzzy, but the singing, evanescent tone on that A string, except for a couple dodgy flautando notes at one point, was a delight. One hoped for Bach as an encore, but Ma chose instead a piece from one of his crossover projects: Mark O'Connor's Appalachia Waltz. As I have written before, this piece was "composed in fifteen minutes" and sounds like it.

Eschenbach is known for championing some very strange musicians, especially young ones, as soloists. To the list of weird choices -- think Tzimon Barto, think Dan Zhu -- we can add the name of eccentric organist Cameron Carpenter. He was invited, ostensibly, to play the finale of Saint-Saëns's third symphony, known as "Organ Symphony," but the organ part in it, although loud, is not all that noteworthy. Carpenter, in one of his trademarked filleted and shredded outfits and high-raised mohawk, did not really register on the ear until he went back to the console of the Concert Hall's new organ for an encore. Having wished for a Bach suite, I can only blame myself for somehow calling for what came out of the pipes -- Carpenter's truly weird arrangement of a signature Yo-Yo Ma piece, the prelude of Bach's C major cello suite (video, from another venue, embedded below -- avoid drinking anything while listening to it, if you do not want to spray coffee all over your computer screen). All that can be said about this performance is that just because you may have talent does not mean that you will receive good taste in equal measure.

The NSO's regular season gets underway next week (October 3 to 5), with a performance of Haydn's 21st symphony, the Saint-Saëns "Organ-Symphony" (again), and the world premiere of a new multimedia piece by Roger Reynolds.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Cameron is exactly what Classical music needs - a good jolt. A very amusing and thrilling performance. And Bach, the great improvisor, would probably not look unfavorably on modifications to the text.
I would not think it is anything more outrageous than what Liszt or Paganini did.
Watching his legs work is fascinating. Wonder if he does any Messiaen?