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NSO on Saturday, Brahms and Mozart

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Brahms, Symphonies, G. Wand, NDR-Sinfonieorchester

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Mozart, Violin Concertos, J. Ehnes, Mozart Anniversary Orchestra
What conductors do on the podium does not really matter. It may seem a ludicrous statement, but even some famous conductors, like Riccardo Muti, claim to believe it. It is true that the sound an orchestra produces is entirely made by the players, and the interpretation that results from the alchemy between a conductor and the musicians is not entirely due to the work on the podium. In the same way, though, people who are too willing to give all the credit for a good performance to the musicians can be just as quick to give the blame for a bad one entirely to the conductor. Especially now, when conductors are accorded far less authority than they used to have, much of the conductor's job boils down to inspiration and the alchemy with the musicians is largely a matter of personal relationships. Although musicians can still be awed by some conductors, willing to subjugate their own musical impulses to a venerated baton, they are generally less likely to do so. When there is a conflict between the musicians and their leader, however, both are to blame if the musical results are unsatisfactory.

Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, certainly has his detractors, who come out to comment on articles about him, no matter where he is. With this sort of "sour grapes" sentiment, it is hard not to suspect personal bias or revenge as the motivation. Even so, Eschenbach's tendency toward controversy over the years shows that he has some deficiencies in creating consensus among his musicians, which is mostly what being a conductor means these days. Not being privy to the rehearsal process of the NSO or the personal interactions between conductor and musicians, I have only the performance results on which to judge Eschenbach's successes and failures. These successes and failures, as stated above, must rest on the shoulders of both conductor and musicians. Last week's program from the NSO, heard at the final performance on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, did not make the cut for my December concert picks, largely because the selection of Brahms and Mozart felt like a concession to the conventional. It turned out to be anything but ordinary.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, From ‘Magic Flute’s’ first sour note, NSO offers little magic on a slipshod night (Washington Post, December 6)

Terry Ponick, NSO, Nurit Bar-Josef in varied all-German program (Washington Times, December 7)
The first symphony of Brahms received one of the oddest interpretations of that work to reach these ears. The tempos were stretched out to excruciating slowness in some cases and rubato slathered on, sometimes bringing the piece to a complete stop, so that the timing was at least ten minutes longer than most other versions. The "Poco sostenuto" introduction of the first movement was lugubrious, drawn out to provide contrast with the slower-than-normal Allegro section that followed. This allowed a measure-by-measure examination of some of the harmonic details, like the opening pedal point, but the piece really stalled at points. The second movement, nowhere close to Andante, wallowed in a similar way, played in a way that felt more like Wagner than Brahms, challenging the breath support of some of the wind players. The third movement's slowness fit well with the piece, gracious as Brahms indicated it, but the heaviness returned in the Finale, especially at the end, which recalled the weight of the opening movement. All in all, it was exceedingly strange, and not the way I would choose to hear the piece, but where Eschenbach may have eschewed inventive programming, he certainly surprised in the interpretation.

The opening work, the overture to Mozart's Magic Flute, sounded crisp and clean, in contrast to the less unified performance heard the previous night. There were no sour chords as reported of the opening night performance on Thursday, so perhaps musicians and conductor came together after two performances. Mozart's fourth violin concerto (D major, K. 218), performed with an even smaller number of string players, was performed on a subscription concert for the first time since 1970, when David Oistrakh was the soloist. That is exalted company (and a damning comparison) for any violinist, but the NSO's concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, went mostly for elegant restraint and amiability. She played with a lovely tone, rarefying her vibrato for the most part, giving an easy chattiness to the first movement, crowned by the inventive, contrapuntal cadenza by James Ehnes. While the third movement was likewise gracious and playful in temperament, with the NSO accompanying expertly, the second movement tended just slightly to the slow and schmaltzy side. Just as Bar-Josef began that movement's cadenza, an audience member tried to leave the hall but vomited in the aisle before he could exit. It was perhaps another sign that this was just an "off" week for the NSO, but Bar-Josef, a consummate professional, appeared to see the incident but played on without a hitch.

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