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NSO Tour Prep, Part 2

The historic snowfall last weekend paralyzed Washington, and it has thrown a wrench into Christoph Eschenbach's preparation of the National Symphony Orchestra for its upcoming European tour. Last week's program of Rouse, Dvořák, and Brahms as orchestrated by Schoenberg ended up receiving only a single performance on Thursday instead of the expected three. The prolonged snow clean-up also forced the NSO to cancel its rehearsal on Monday, which they are making up today, but the uncertainty had an impact on the orchestra's sound and sense of security in its second of three tour programs, heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The main course of each concert will be a chestnut symphony: the Brahms first symphony (heard on tonight's program) or Beethoven's seventh symphony (heard on Thursday and again tonight), with Schoenberg's slightly odd orchestration of the Brahms first piano quartet as an alternative in some cases. The Beethoven was in decidedly rough shape last night, especially the outer movements, with some uncertainty of tempo and some sloppy coordination in the violin sections. (My kingdom for a unified pizzicato chord.) Eschenbach seemed to want the most brash, raw sound possible at points, and the strings, especially the violins, responded with outright hacking attacks. The winds were often pushed into quite dicey intonation, and the horns were like bulls in the proverbial china shop, and not in a good way. The inner movements felt the most secure, the funeral march kept in strict military step and an ultra-tight Presto in the third movement.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Eschenbach, NSO prepare European repertory for European tour (Washington Post, January 29)
Most of the concerts on the NSO tour will feature cellist Daniel Müller-Schott or pianist Lang Lang in a beloved concerto (Dvořák for cello, Grieg for piano). In only the first concert of the tour, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony (B minor, D. 759) takes the concerto slot and is never heard again. This is a shame based on how the musicians played it last night. The cello section gave the first movement's famous second theme -- the one that music students remember for their "Drop the Needle" tests as sung to the words "This is the symphony that Schu-u-ubert never finished" -- a character so subdued and unaffected that it was instantly winning. Again, Eschenbach brought out oddities, emphasizing swells in accompanying figures in ways that seemed unnecessary. His tempo choice for the second movement seemed a little sluggish, the gestures dipped in molasses, making those mystery modulations toward the end hard to pull off, little more than just soft. Traffic nightmares made me too late for the overture to Weber's Der Freischütz, a rather middling alternative to Rouse's concert-opening corker Phaethon.

Two other versions of the NSO European tour repertory will be performed tonight and Saturday, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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