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Second Opinion: NSO's Night of Stars, Gala in January

available at Amazon
Hindemith, Violinkonzert / Symphonic Metamorphosis / Konzertmusik, Midori, NDR Symphony Orchestra, C. Eschenbach
(Ondine, 2013)

available at Amazon
Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto, J. Bell, Camerata Salzburg, R. Norrington
(Sony, 2002)
What was Christoph Eschenbach thinking, programming Mendelssohn's E minor violin concerto for the second time in less than a year? Likely he was thinking of how that work, with none less than Joshua Bell as the soloist, would help fill the house for what he had planned on the second half. That was the National Symphony Orchestra's first-ever performance of Paul Hindemith's brooding, elegiac oratorio, When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd, a work that the composer, part of the "brain drain" that fled Nazi Germany for American shores, thought of as a sort of "American Requiem." As heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the pairing was a success, hopefully bringing an under-appreciated choral work to many more ears.

Joshua Bell has performed this chestnut of a concerto enough times in his career that he is entitled to have some fun with it. In fact, Bell could probably attempt playing the piece with a large stalk of celery instead of his bow, with no effect on the box office. So it was good to hear this often staid performer shake things up, with a mercurial sense of tempo in the first movement, a more urgent Andante in the second, and a madcap springiness in the third. The technique was self-assured, the dangerous sugar content limited to some pure, floating sounds on the E string, and the audience never allowed to sit comfortably ensconced in its expectations for how Joshua Bell would play this most familiar concerto. His model in this somewhat unpredictable style of performance, we could surmise, is the example of the virtuosos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those violinist-composers Bell once told me that he most admired as the exemplar for his own plans, so far unrealized, to compose his own music. We had a taste of what we might expect of Bell the composer, since in these performances he is playing his own cadenzas, most notably in the daring, wide-ranging one he added to the first movement. (These cadenzas go back at least as far as Bell's recording of the Mendelssohn a decade ago.) The audience's attempts to coax an encore from Bell, with sustained ovations, ultimately did not prevail.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO review: Fresh off his Grammy, Eschenbach commands a worthy night (Washington Post, January 31)

Philip Kennicott, Joshua Bell and Hindemith at the NSO (, January 31)

Gero Schliess, Eschenbach after the Grammys: 'The real winner is Hindemith' (Deutsche Welle, January 29)

Marita Berg, Enfant terrible, minstrel: Paul Hindemith 50 years after his death (Deutsche Welle, December 28)

Tim Smith, Christoph Eschenbach to lead NSO in rare performance of Hindemith requiem (Baltimore Sun, January 27)
Among all the grand choral statements of the 20th century that the city's many local choruses could program, When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd is one of the ones heard least often. (The last time for me was at Washington National Cathedral in 2009.) It is a sprawling, long-winded kind of piece that sets an enormous number of wandering lines by Walt Whitman, poetry commemorating Whitman's service as a nurse in the Civil War and chosen by Hindemith to mark the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although Hindemith began the work in response to a specific death, he later gave it the subtitle "Requiem for Those We Love," adding a sense of mourning for all the victims of the Second World War. The quotation of a hymn, which Hindemith knew to have been derived from a Jewish melody, directs that sense of mourning more precisely to those who had died in the Holocaust. (For more background on the piece, see the excellent program note by Thomas May.)

A Hindemith anniversary (he died on December 28, 1963) has just passed without much notice, but Eschenbach's championship of the composer's music was marked with a Grammy award this year, in the category of Best Classical Compendium. (How a single disc of one composer's works counts as a "compendium" is another matter, but it is what it is.) He led an authoritative reading of Lilacs, drawing out plenty of booming sound from the orchestra and from the generally well-prepared Choral Arts Society of Washington, at their best in the implacable third movement ("March") and the large-proportioned seventh movement. This performance reunited mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and baritone Matthias Goerne, heard together two years ago with the NSO in Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Goerne, who was so on his game earlier in the week, was at his best in unaccompanied or softly orchestrated passages in the Hindemith, having to bellow a bit when the orchestra was at full bore. By contrast, DeYoung just owned the stage in her sweet Arioso movements, often beautifully shadowed by English horn solos, with a native pronunciation of English that revealed the shortcomings in Goerne's diction. From the ninth movement ("Death Carol") to the somber conclusion, especially, this was a tense and mournful experience, well worth hearing.

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday evening (January 31 and February 1, 8 pm).

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