From ‘Magic Flute’s’ first sour note, NSO offers little magic on a slipshod night

December 5, 2013

Christoph Eschenbach has had a hard time with Mozart this year: booed in Salzburg for a “Cosi fan tutte.” Criticized strongly in Vienna for “The Magic Flute.”

Thursday’s concert with the National Symphony Orchestra opened with a rendition of “The Magic Flute” overture that was, alas, also unimpressive — from the first sour, sustained, acidulous chord.

It was an intimate concert at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall — intimate in that it involved only Eschenbach and his NSO family. The instrumental soloist, playing Mozart’s fourth violin concerto, was the orchestra’s concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef. And it also was intimate in that it didn’t take a subscription audience anywhere outside its comfort zone. The concerto, less well-known than the two that bracketed it, was the least familiar piece on the program, which concluded with the Brahms First Symphony.

It could have been a chance for everyone to shine. But the performance as a whole came off as windy, bombastic and slipshod. The orchestra has been sounding much better of late, but that opening chord in “The Magic Flute” proved to set the tone for a night in which the strings sounded often uncharacteristically thin, the chords unbalanced and untuned.

Even Bar-Josef seemed less than her elegant, lyrical self, slightly discomfited by her unfamiliar role in the spotlight. She is such a sunny and fluid player that it was odd to find her a little stiff; even her playing took on some of the self-conscious awkwardness of the orchestra around her. I hope and suspect she might grow more assured over the course of the next two concerts (Friday and Saturday), since she surely has the ability and flair to do even more with this rather uncompromising piece.

Eschenbach was a supportive accompanist, and it was generous of him to conduct one of his players in this role at all. The audience rewarded Bar-Josef warmly, with deserved applause, and she returned to the stage after the intermission and played with her signature singing lightness in the Brahms, where she was a much-needed ray of light.

I have often observed Eschenbach’s technical shortcomings as a conductor: the unclear beat, the episodic nature of his work, with its start-and-stop phrasings. I have just as often noted that the spiritual dimension to his conducting outweighs those drawbacks for many listeners.

On Thursday night, however, I found that the Brahms descended to the level of parody. I am not a huge fan of Eschenbach’s signature tempo changes and slamming-on of brakes and heart-on-the-sleeve Emotion that he uses so abundantly in Mahler, but they were an especially bad fit in Brahms.

The Mozart overture had partaken of the same unrelenting intensity; and though the Brahms certainly built and built — and couldn’t be accused of stasis — the program had an air of sameness. It was all about Big Feelings.

The approach might have worked better if it had been better backed up musically, but since the orchestra sounded as though it was simply having an off night, all that remained was “sound and fury signifying nothing” — words that, grown cliched through overuse, are a particularly apt description of a concert that kept groping for great gestures of its own. It ended on a chord as wavering and uncertain as the chord that had opened it.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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