NSO’s slightly Nordic, very Viennese diversion


Christoph Eschenbach (Margot Schulman/Margot Schulman)
March 8, 2013

Last week, I had dinner in one of those restaurants maintained by culinary schools so students can test their skills — where diners get a high-class meal for an upper-middle-class price, understanding there might be some hiccups in the experience. And certainly there were flaws. One problem: Too many ingredients and flavors were vying for attention on each plate.

Thursday night’s National Symphony Orchestra concert reminded me of that meal. There was an awful lot going on in a short span of time, and it didn’t all fit together — and I very much enjoyed myself regardless.

The Kennedy Center is in the grip of its Nordic Cool festival, but Thursday’s program (which repeats Friday and Saturday) seemed a leftover from last year’s celebration of Prague, Budapest and Vienna. It was an all-Viennese program, its music heavy and sweet and languid, ticking back chronologically from Mahler’s “Blumine” (the discarded second movement of his first symphony) to some orchestral arrangements of Schubert songs to, finally, Mozart’s Requiem.

What does Mozart’s Requiem have to do with “Blumine”? And why, if you’ve engaged Anne Sofie von Otter for the Schubert songs, would you engage a different mezzo-soprano for the Requiem? There’s definitely an answer to that last question, and it quite possibly wasn’t the NSO’s idea to bring in someone else, but the contrast made for an odd juxtaposition.

“Blumine” brought out all the erratic tenderness of the NSO’s music director, Christoph Eschenbach: It was delicate and lovely and episodic and a little fractured — its facets slightly separated out from one another so that it seemed less the shimmering soap bubble it sometimes appears to be and more like an honest-to-goodness symphonic movement. The orchestra also is sounding both lovely and erratic these days: Personnel changes have left the brass generally much improved but sometimes wobbly, something exemplified in both particulars by the movement’s distinctive, beautiful trumpet solo.

But there’s no question that Eschenbach is a marvelous partner to soloists. Von Otter was the “Nordic Cool” element on the program, being both Nordic and very cool indeed (mea culpa; we’ve heard plenty of variants on this joke already, and the festival is not over). And having shown everyone how to sing Scandinavian and French music in her solo recital Monday, she came out and showed how German Lied should be done in a cluster of Schubert. Well, not exactly Lied; she ratcheted her volume up a notch to meet the demands of the orchestra, singing more fully and roundly. Eschenbach kept the ensemble tamped down and springy and responsive, backing her up and never drowning her out.

Some of the songs make for fairly slender orchestral fare, even in Max Reger’s energetic orchestrations. We also got an excerpt of the incidental music that Schubert wrote for the play “Rosamunde,” and — a highlight — Benjamin Britten’s bloopy, burbly arrangement of “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”). Von Otter blended narrative and opera in “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and sent shivers down my spine in the familiar Gothic tale of “Erlkoenig.”

Most breathtaking, though, was a ravishingly gorgeous account of “Nacht und Traume,” which she gave as an encore. There’s a convention that critics shouldn’t review encores, since they are intended as a gift from the artist to the audience; let this, then, be a thank-you note for a gift many of us will treasure.

Then came the Requiem, which in this context was definitely offered as a concert piece rather than as a religious one. It also was a celebration of youth and diversity, and if it seemed rather odd coming after the Schubert, you can’t criticize such a celebration if it’s done right.

The chorus was the University of Maryland Concert Choir, always excellent but sounding a bit more callow than it has in previous outings. The soloists were a young quartet of fresh-voiced singers from South Korea, Austria, South Africa and Kuwait by way of Germany: a definite gesture of diversity, meaningful only because they all sang so well. Tareq Nazmi has a warm, pliant bass along with the slightly stiff demeanor of so many coltish young basses as they grow into themselves; Sunnyboy Dladla has a vibrant, bright, ringing tenor; and Jegyung Yang (a former Domingo-Cafritz young artist) has already shown off her radiant soprano in the D.C. region.

The slightly weaker link was Daniela Lehner, the mezzo-soprano, who seemed to be trying a little bit too hard. Perhaps it was just that the implied comparison with von Otter had tensed her up a bit; the Swedish mezzo was certainly a hard act to follow.

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