NSO offers unusual Haydn and Brahms, plus cellist Steven Isserlis in Schumann concerto

In recent weeks, some people have written me to take exception to my description of programming at the National Symphony Orchestra as “business as usual.” One of the points of having a large orchestra at all, after all, is having an opportunity to hear great works of music — the Dvorak Ninth Symphony, say, or the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto — performed live.

I have nothing against hearing masterpieces, of course. But Thursday night’s NSO program at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall served as a kind of illustration of what I have meant — by demonstrating the opposite of “business as usual.”

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The names in the playbill were familiar: Haydn, Schumann and Brahms. But the works, apart from the Schumann cello concerto, were not. The Haydn was the 72nd symphony, which the NSO was playing for the first time, and the Brahms was the first piano quartet as arranged by Arnold Schoenberg — which, whatever you think of Schoenberg’s gargantuan inflation of Brahms’s original, was a lot of fun to hear, and hadn’t been performed by the orchestra since 1984 (though it’s appeared at the Kennedy Center as an accompaniment to Balanchine’s choreography in the years since).

And the performance of the cello soloist, Steven Isserlis, was anything but routine. Isserlis flings himself into music with a physical abandon that is sometimes overdone (witness the shakes of his majestic silver mane, head flung back, during orchestral passages when he wasn’t actually playing himself), but he’s utterly committed to every moment, making a light, elegant sound that is anything but exaggerated. Indeed, at times, it’s rather understated.

Christoph Eschenbach is in the middle of a long winter stint with the orchestra, affording him, theoretically, time to bond — during which a music director can shape an ensemble. And this program was the kind he often favors: an orchestral showcase.

Although the form of the program was the conventional short introductory piece-concerto-symphony-length piece, each piece gave special prominence to individual orchestra members. The Haydn, a light early work, had abundant solos, including one for the double bass (shadowed by delicate accompaniment from solo violin and cello); the Schumann is rife with moments of exchange between the soloist and groupings of instruments in the orchestra; and Schoenberg’s Brahms draws on a Technicolor paintbox of orchestral color, including an unusual (to say the least) efflorescence of xylophone punctuation in the final movement — perhaps a nod, this being one of Brahms’s many “Gypsy” finales, to the cimbalom of Hungarian tradition.

The orchestra has the manpower to rise to such occasions — Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster, reaching into a strikingly low register in the Haydn, or Aaron Goldman sounding particularly fluid on the flute. If the expression remains blunted, that’s at least in part because the conductor is not sharpening it. His Haydn, in particular, grew a little plodding and heavy — a shame in such a sparkly piece.

The Schoenberg Brahms was a better fit. The piece itself is so big and bombastic that it doesn’t suffer from approximation on the podium, and it has lots of strong contrasts, which is the kind of thing Eschenbach loves to bring out. This is Schoenberg not in rebellious mode, but rather reverential, seeking to participate in the music of one of his favorite composers — and incidentally reminding listeners that before he began to explore the 12-tone system, he was a composer of big, lavish late-romantic works like “Gurrelieder.” The composer is having a lot of fun, and Eschenbach and the orchestra seemed to be enjoying themselves, as well.

Since its repainting this summer, the white-walled concert hall has had an unfinished look to it. That sense of being under construction was augmented at Thursday’s performance through the installation of temporary acoustic tiles — “part of an acoustical assessment commissioned by the Kennedy Center,” a program insert informed us, looking like white boards or tarps closing off some of the choral balconies and openings around the stage. The effect was less of business as usual than of a work in progress.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

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