National Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert seems like a dress rehearsal

The National Symphony Orchestra is preparing for its next tour. That was the main message that came across at Thursday night’s concert. The whole thing smacked of a dress rehearsal — at least, it felt as if the real pizazz was missing, despite lots of expenditure of nervous energy.

The pieces on the program (as with last week’s) will all be featured on the tour; next Thursday, the orchestra will be playing the same thing in Spain. It’s at once a curiously anodyne and hubristic assortment of pieces to take on a tour of Europe.

(Courtesy of Kennedy Center) - Violinist Dan Zhu makes his debut with NSO Jan. 24.

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This concert began with a string-orchestra arrangement of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, the great movement originally written as the finale of his B-flat string quartet; continued with Mozart’s fifth violin concerto; and concluded with the real meat of the program, Bartok’s concerto for orchestra.

It was anodyne, because none of those pieces has much to do or say about the specific qualities of the National Symphony Orchestra (the tour consists of mainstays of the European canon); it was hubristic, because if you’re going to bring these pieces to the cradle of classical music, you have to do them really, really well.

Thursday’s performance didn’t quite cut it. The Grosse Fuge is one of the most important works ever written for string quartet, but what came across in this performance was more hyperbolic — a lot of frantic, superficial energy — than the searing, incisive solo lines of the original composition.

On tour, the Mozart concerto will be played by Arabella Steinbacher, a last-minute replacement for Julia Fischer, who pulled out for personal reasons. At the Kennedy Center this week, it was the vehicle for the official NSO debut of another Christoph Eschenbach protege, Dan Zhu, who appeared in a chamber concert with Eschenbach last year.

Zhu is one of Eschenbach’s musical pets. Most of these proteges are a little outside the box, with a more or less defiant, or deliberate, maverick streak — less deliberate in cases when they are so outside the norm that they don’t even fully know they’re different. That might be Zhu’s case. He seemed to have some instincts toward freedom of expression, slightly varying the melodic line, working in small hints of improvisation. But he has neither the technique nor the artistry, at this point, to pull me in. His intonation was shaky, and his phrasing grew monotonous. A first violin section that sounded oddly anemic, and some infelicitious horn playing, helped make heavy work of this performance.

After the weak first half, the Bartok felt like a welcome dose of solidity: a good meal after too many flaky canapes. But this brilliant showpiece for a great orchestra shows flaws in a merely good one. I’m not sure what’s going on with the NSO’s horns, but they haven’t sounded great for the past couple of weeks, and in this piece, the massed brass was strident.

Balances are one of Eschenbach’s Achilles’ heels, but I’ve never heard the first violins sound quite as muted as they did Thursday. It remains an exhilarating work, and if the NSO’s tour repertoire makes any statement, it’s about the greatness of Bartok — although the piano concerto that was a highlight of last week’s program will only be played once while the orchestra is in Europe.

Meanwhile, for an institution that has just received an organ that costs several million dollars, the Kennedy Center is not acting very excited about it. In place of the usual post-concert discussion, Thursday night’s audience had the option of staying for a short recital on the new organ by one of the city’s favorite organists, J. Reilly Lewis. Neither the Kennedy Center nor the NSO, however, did a good job of letting people know about this.

If you want to get people excited about going to concerts, wouldn’t it be a good idea to trumpet your wonderful new instrument from the rooftops? The organ’s inaugural concert showed just how many in Washington do care — but judging from how Lewis’s concert was almost clandestinely presented, the Kennedy Center might not be among them.

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