This season, the National Symphony Orchestra has started occasionally varying the format of its subscription concerts. Rather than offer the same thing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the NSO sometimes plays something different on Friday night.
This week, Friday’s concert is a preview of the performance that the orchestra will give May 11 at Carnegie Hall — its first performance there with its current music director, Christoph Eschenbach. On Thursday and Saturday, however, instead of 20th-century Russian music, the orchestra scheduled the Elgar Cello Concerto on the first half of the program.
The Carnegie Hall appearance is part of Spring for Music, a festival celebrating American orchestras and innovative programming, but perhaps that programming was deemed a little too innovative for D.C. subscription audiences.
Or maybe the orchestra already had a commitment to Alisa Weilerstein, the cello virtuoso whom the concerto showcased. Weilerstein has been a rising star for at least a decade, so she is ready to move into star territory — although it’s notable that her presentation still smacks of the child prodigy she once was. She took the stage Thursday in a princess-prom dress, all pale-blue tulle and sparkly sequins, looking about 12 years old.
Her playing, too, has a certain sameness to it. She has a set of impassioned mannerisms, flinging her head and arm, that carry over from one piece to another. The Elgar does invite passionate intensity, full and autumnal and rotund, and Eschenbach and the orchestra matched Weilerstein’s — meaning that it added up to a somewhat blurry performance.
The NSO, though, is generally sounding good these days. It can’t hurt that it has two international tours in the span of a year, together with its music director under its belt. Nor can it hurt that it has a Carnegie appearance to look forward to. Playing for new audiences remains a great way to focus and boost morale. Certainly, the NSO played a vibrant and vivid reading of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the one common thread through all three of this week’s performances.
This symphony is home turf for the NSO — which harbors a special relationship with Russian music after the Mstislav Rostropovich years — and for Eschenbach, who has recorded it and who approached it with a palpable comfort and authority. It’s filled with coiled energy, and a sometimes-manic drive, and a kind of bitter brightness that is temperamentally far from Eschenbach. But it also is filled with contrasting characters, and conductor and orchestra brought them out adroitly, from the tramping military march to the parodistic Scherzo, in which violin and then flute try out the role of buffoon, to a tender and aching reading of the Adagio. And the final movement went out in a blaze of blaring brass and sawing violins.
Eschenbach might not be a conducting technician, but he’s doing good things with this orchestra, which sounded as ready for Carnegie Hall as it has in a good long time.
The program repeats Saturday night; Friday’s program includes the Schnittke viola concerto, with David Aaron Carpenter as soloist.