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NSO's Drab Tchaikovsky-Fest

If you looked at this week's underwhelming program from the National Symphony Orchestra and wondered if it would be worth hearing, don't bother. Fans of Tchaikovsky, who is the sole composer represented this week and next week, will not be dissuaded by anything I write, nor will those who want to hear the ensemble's fine concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, take the platform as soloist. For those who were already on the fence, though, you can stay home.

My distaste for Tchaikovsky's music, when his propensity for long-windedness was not limited by an opera libretto or a ballet choreographer, is (probably too) well known. He was a prodigiously talented composer, and music director Christoph Eschenbach is to be congratulated for choosing mostly Tchaikovsky never before played by his orchestra or at least not in some time. The execution, however, did not put this less familiar music in the best light. The fantasy-overture Hamlet, last heard in 1990 under Mstislav Rostropovich, had a bland opening in Elsinore (all that unison playing left a little tedious) and the fast sections underscored their own banality. The playing of assistant principal oboist Jamie Roberts, on the forlorn theme associated with Ophelia, saved the middle section, even when Tchaikovsky's writing for the instrument, into the occasionally unreliable lower range, caused some inevitable intonation issues.

The situation did not improve much for the youthful first symphony, last heard on much better terms in 2009 under Andrew Litton. "A sin of my sweet youth," Tchaikovsky reportedly said of the work, with the better orchestrational and melodic ideas reworked in more effective form in the score for The Nutcracker. Eschenbach and the musicians got the most out of the slow movement, which oozed along and had some fine mistiness in the soft playing, but while the scherzo was warm and genial, the tempo was perhaps on the slow side. Eschenbach pushed a little too much for bluster and speed in the finale, which made the often absurd fugal sections something of a jumble.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Eschenbach starts two-week Tchaikovsky focus at NSO with unusual repertoire (Washington Post, January 23)
In the middle came two slender pieces, the Sérénade mélancolique and Valse-Scherzo, mini-showpieces for violin that received their first NSO performances here. Nurit Bar-Josef does what she does as the NSO's concertmaster extremely well, but parts of Tchaikovsky's more demanding writing put her in a not so excellent light. Her vibrato-heavy, buzzing tone on the G string was electrifying on the opening of the Sérénade, and her octaves were clean and strong, but little about the phrasing or musical choices struck me as all that remarkable. The more challenging Valse-Scherzo also had plenty of energy and flawless spiccato technique, but the passages in double-stops not so much. Even the audience in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which routinely gives a standing ovation for any soloist, stayed firmly in its seats.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

NBJ got a standing ovation Friday and Saturday... and on Saturday the audience clapped after every movement of the symphony as well! I think some audiences are just more enthusiastic than others.