Some orchestras may be struggling these days, but all is well with the National Symphony Orchestra, which opened its 83rd season on Sunday night. Its music director, Christoph Eschenbach, wore his heart on his sleeve, conducting solo lines with expressions of transfigured passion, sometimes turning partly to the audience as if, encouraged, it might play along, too. And play along the audience did: The gala raised some $1.2 million. Even the concert hall wore a fresh face: Newly painted for the first time in years, its walls are now a glaring white, as if someone had gotten stuck trying to figure out which color to pick.
Galas are supposed to be fun, and the NSO’s was; even the speakers smacked less of the town Rotary Club meeting than they have in years past. (David M. Rubenstein, the chairman of the Kennedy Center, jokingly offered a special concert to all the members of Congress to help them come more easily to a decision.) The program presented favorites that weren’t too cliche — all right, maybe a little cliche — and a couple of arresting soloists.
The evening’s first half was all-Tchaikovsky, starting with “Romeo and Juliet,” which allowed Eschenbach to make big, heartfelt gestures, although the piece as a whole sounded episodic, unrelievedly intense. Eschenbach had some ups and downs this summer, the low point probably was the experience of getting booed on opening night of what was allegedly an underrehearsed “Cosi fan tutte” in Salzburg. Whatever the reason, he seemed to be throwing himself into his work on Sunday with a little extra abandon. But the orchestra still sounds as if it were enjoying the experience.
You can’t go wrong with Yo-Yo Ma. It sounds like a slogan, and Ma is at a point in his career of having to fight off slogan-hood, particularly in repertoire he’s played hundreds of times before, such as Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme,” one of the standard bonbons for cello and orchestra. He played it sometimes elegantly and sometimes even fiercely, with rawness as if he were worrying the notes. But to my ear, he sounded more engaged in the piece he played for an encore, the “Appalachia Waltz” by Mark O’Connor, a light excerpt that in Ma’s hands was utterly compelling.
Suites from Bizet’s “Carmen” are like karaoke for classical fans; who can’t hum along with the Toreador song or Carmen’s Habañera? When arranging the second suite, composer Ernest Guiraud appears to have had fun casting the various roles with unexpected instruments, giving both of the above-mentioned arias to an overworked solo trumpet.
More predictable was assigning the role of Micaëla to the singing violin. Nurit Bar-Josef, the orchestra’s concertmaster, was ravishing and dramatically convincing; I could almost hear the words.
The Kennedy Center’s new organ was decidedly underutilized in its maiden season; as if to redress the deficit, it got pride of place at Sunday’s gala. It was played by one of the most recognizable and controversial organists on the scene today, Cameron Carpenter, who took the stage looking like an extra in a Goth production of “Phantom of the Opera”: shoes aglitter with crystals, cravat tied in a floppy bow, and his pale face topped with hair styled in a tame variant of a mohawk. Not that the NSO could do anything really radical, like play a different piece: Carpenter was brought in to perform the end of Saint-Saëns’s so-called Organ Symphony, his third, which was also played at the organ’s inauguration last November, and which will be featured — complete — on the orchestra’s subscription programs this week.
It’s a pretty safe bet, however, that Carpenter’s rousing, plaster-you-to-the-back-of-the-auditorium-wall interpretation on Sunday will stand apart from other performances. Carpenter has worked with tremendous care on his musicianship, and with almost equal care on his presence as an enfant terrible; he wants to be arresting, and he wants to make you feel something about the organ. The feelings he evokes are mixed. His encore, his own arrangement of a Bach solo cello suite, was at once brilliant and cacophonous, a glorious mashup challenging the limits of good taste. I imagined I saw a bemused look creeping over the face of the NSO’s principal cellist, David Hardy, as he listened onstage. Some people, I’m sure, hated it, but it was great fun and got the audience stirred up and applauding, and made a wonderfully splashy finale.