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Posted at 08:41 AM ET, 02/13/2013

Eyewitness: NSO reigns in Germany

For the last two weeks, the National Symphony Orchestra has been touring Spain, Germany and France; the trip ends tonight with a performance in Oman. From Germany, Jens F. Laurson writes this report on what appears to have been a very positive reception. [Edited after posting to incorporate minor changes.]

By Jens F. Laurson

The National Symphony Orchestra’s South America tour last summer was fun, glamorous, and non-competitive; wherever the orchestra went, it was always better than the local band. Its tour to Europe, which ends today with a final performance at the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman, was a different story. Although it brought the orchestra to sleepy towns like Murcia (Spain) and Nuremberg (Germany), it also exposed them to audiences who were spoiled with fine orchestras. Christoph Eschenbach has touted touring as a good team-building exercise for an orchestra, and playing in a new city often brings out the best in an ensemble; in Europe, the public’s expectations are higher, and the musicians know it.

The NSO last went to Europe in 2002 under Leonard Slatkin, who emphasized American composers: a choice that both played to the orchestra’s strengths (perceived or real) and avoided direct comparisons by offering music that audiences were unlikely to have heard. Eschenbach, by contrast, offered an all-European program of Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Richard Strauss, making a conscious decision to be compared to local standards in core classical repertoire that plays, purportedly, to his own strengths.

Those strengths were immediately audible when the NSO opened the Nuremberg concert on February 7 in Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture: The winds entered gorgeously, the strings were as cohesive as I have ever heard from the orchestra. And Eschenbach’s often peculiar, always original approach of adding bookmarks and flexible tempos paid sumptuous dividends. In Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” the focus lay on individual voices and, for once, speed, to which the orchestra responded reluctantly but commendably, especially since they didn’t have a rehearsal in the vast Meistersinger Hall. Brahms’ Second Symphony — a slow, 50 minute affair in Eschenbach’s hands — had a particularly tender third and zany fourth movement. Only when the ensemble swerved dangerously near the finale did imprecision rear its ugly head.

Above: A snippet from the NSO’s last tour: Tchaikovsky in Sao Paolo in the summer of 2012. Christoph Eschenbach and the orchestra are just wrapping up their second international tour in a matter of months.

Hamburg, Eschenbach’s musical home for six years, where the NSO played on February 6, boasts the superb Laeiszhalle and two top-notch local orchestras. But the orchestra’s other stops in Germany — Düsseldorf, Nuremberg, and Frankfurt — are not the classical music hubs of the country. One might surmise that in Berlin, Munich and Cologne a lesser-known orchestra like the NSO is difficult to sell, audiences harder to please, and critics more severe. Yet in Hamburg as well as Düsseldorf, the orchestra received rapturous reviews.

Both in Nuremberg and Frankfurt, the NSO’s concerts were also enthusiastically received. The Nuremberg audience was made up of loyal subscribers to a well-established concert series that presents an array of orchestras and choruses. An unscientific survey at intermission showed that they loved large orchestras in general and Brahms in particular; had heard of Eschenbach before; but had no particular reason for attending, other than their subscription. In Frankfurt, which gets more orchestra traffic, the audience on February 9 seemed younger and less subscription-dependent, and several mentioned Julia Fischer, who was scheduled to be the violin soloist, as a particular attraction. Replacing the Frankfurt native admirably was her compatriot Arabella Steinbacher, who distinguished herself by showing that even Mozart can, just about, be played too beautifully. (Steinbacher will be in Washington to perform the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the NSO March 28th through 30th.)

One Frankfurt patron did complain about the “experimental repertoire.” He was referring to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which was commissioned, written, and premiered in the United States -- in the 1940s. This was the centerpiece of the NSO’s second program, which opened with the Weingartner orchestration of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge op. 133 for string quartet, and sandwiched the Mozart Violin Concerto No.5 between them. Beethoven and Bartók are linked because the Fugue plays off the Concerto’s fugal opening and closing movement. It has something else in common with Bartók’s masterpiece: It’s a bold and an odd choice of repertoire for this tour. The Beethoven is almost impossible to nail, even for the most precise among elite symphonic orchestras. Consequently, even a very good performance isn’t quite good enough; only perfection will do.

The Bartók benefits from perfection, too, and a razor-sharp beat. Fortunately it doesn’t depend on it. Eschenbach focused — wisely or necessarily — on color, and elicited plenty. The trumpets sounded like an angry hornet’s nest, the brass chorales were tender, the Andante was stretched and daring, the ensuing Intermezzo so alive it induced ripples of laughter, and in the finale the timpanist produced deliciously virtuosic moments. You might question whether those moments came together as a whole; but there was no question that the National Symphony Orchestra left a mighty fine impression.

Laurson is a freelance writer.

By  |  08:41 AM ET, 02/13/2013

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