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Pintscher Debuts at NSO

To no one's surprise, the National Symphony Orchestra will not renew Christoph Eschenbach's contract as Music Director after the 2016-2017 season. The announcement came on the heels of more shocking podium news, principally that the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert are parting ways at the same time as Eschenbach and the NSO. Speculation ran rampant on Twitter as to what conductors around the world might be on New York's short list, and many of the same names might be on the wish list of Deborah Rutter, the new president of the Kennedy Center since last September. Such speculation, as entertaining as it can be, is nothing more than that, but one can peruse the list of guest conductors who have appeared with the NSO in recent years, and those will appear in the near future, to form a possible list.

With that in mind, the NSO debut of young conductor Matthias Pintscher was thrown into sharp relief last night. The relatively young German is also a composer, whose works have been heard in Washington a fair amount in recent years and who was introduced to the NSO by none other than Christoph Eschenbach. Pintscher's music, to my ears, is hit and miss, with fine and interesting efforts like the Hérodiade-Fragmente, heard from the NSO in 2010, alongside the rather dull violin concerto, Mar'eh, given its North American premiere last night. Pintscher is a first-rate orchestrator, and the new piece teems with unexpected sounds, but a half-hour of scratches and wisps of sound, no matter how intriguing, is a burden to most ears. It is the sort of writing that can be a slog for orchestral musicians: as a musician friend once said, it is "the kind of piece where you rest for 57 bars and then click your key pads on an offbeat." Violinist Karen Gomyo, heard with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, is not on the same level as Julia Fischer, for whom the work was created, but was up to the challenges of the solo part.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, At NSO, German composer leads French music — and his own (Washington Post, February 20)

Kate Molleson, BBCSSO/Pintscher review – ardour at arm’s length (The Guardian, December 5, 2014)

Anthony Tommasini, Philharmonic’s Contemporary Foray Ends, With a Promise of More (New York Times, June 8, 2014)
The rest of the program was devoted to late Romantic French music, a style that is a major influence on Pintscher's compositional voice. Pintscher serves as music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the band that Pierre Boulez built, and has made his name as a contemporary specialist. At the podium in Fauré's suite of incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande and Ravel's complete ballet score for Daphnis et Chloé, Pintscher helped to make some pretty, especially soft sounds but fell short of what one would hope for a music director in the canonical repertory.

In both pieces, different sections of the orchestra seemed at odds with each other here and there, especially in the irregular-meter sections of the Ravel, an ensemble deficiency that has to be attributed to Pintscher's beat, not always clear. (To hear music of this period at its best, go hear Charles Dutoit conduct examples by Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande tomorrow.) Individual contributions showed off the NSO's new-found strengths: silvery, low-set flute solos (including alto flute); strong oboe playing from both principal and associate principal players; the tremor-free sound of the horn in the Ravel. About sixty singers from the Washington Master Chorale did well with the thankless job of singing the wordless chorus parts, heard from offstage in the ballet as first choreographed by Michel Fokine (later also choreographed by Frederick Ashton).

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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