NSO opens with pretty sounds, fancy dresses, striking decor


Globally-celebrated violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (in green) plays with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. (Juana Arias/For The Washington Post)

It’s been a rough start to the season for a lot of American orchestras. On Monday, the Minnesota Orchestra locked out its musicians and canceled concerts through Nov. 25 after the players turned down a proposal to cut their salaries by 50 percent. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra canceled several weeks of concerts; the Atlanta Symphony has tenuously resolved a lockout, but orchestra members are still unhappy; the Chicago Symphony had a brief strike; the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is in challenging contract negotiations.

Don’t worry about the National Symphony Orchestra, though. Safely ensconced in the gilded cage of the Kennedy Center, it negotiated a new contract with its players this summer that actually involved cost-of-living raises at a time when the industry norm is becoming salary freezes and cuts. And on Sunday night, it opened its 82nd season with a gala concert-ball that raised, as orchestra Chairman Paul Stern announced, $1.3 million. Who needs the real world?

I’ve written before that the NSO players seem happy with their new music director, Christoph Eschenbach. They should be happy. They’re in one of the best-paid orchestras in the United States, and they have a leader with a lot of soul and enthusiasm. Of course, they can’t always tell when he’s giving the downbeat, and the second violinists play almost exclusively to his back, since he spends so much time turned toward the firsts, but why let details get in the way of your enjoyment? Money isn’t a measure of musical value, but if you’re making enough of it, you may not care.

The opening-night gala isn’t really about music anyway. It’s about “music,” a signifier denoting pretty sounds and fancy dresses and really striking floral decorations like abstract prints in an upscale hotel hanging across the silver-and-gold facade of the new organ. Said organ, obtained at a bargain price, won’t be fully operational until its official unveiling Nov. 27; David M. Rubenstein, the Kennedy Center chairman, who donated the instrument, gave a sweetly funny explanation as to what takes so long (the technicians can only work after hours when the building is empty) that got so many laughs it was unclear whether people actually believed him. Rubenstein also eulogized the late Marvin Hamlisch, the acclaimed composer and longtime principal pops conductor of the NSO, and introduced a video tribute to 11 NSO board members who have each served for more than 35 years — a video that wrote Leonard Slatkin out of the NSO’s history, arcing straight from Rostropovich to Eschenbach.

Anyway, there’s no point in criticizing an orchestra for not doing something artistically adventurous at a concert like this. It’s all about the event, and the NSO obliged by bringing in the formidable violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, sheathed in a dress of vivid green — not unlike the color Renee Fleming wore on opening night two years ago. It sticks in mind because both women initially seemed a little off their game. Mutter can do anything she wants on the violin, but she didn’t seem quite centered for the first part of the Mendelssohn concerto, perhaps because she had trouble finding Eschenbach’s beat and coordinating with the orchestra.

Whatever the cause, it was a breathlessly fast and slightly messy performance, though by the end of the second movement she began to hit her stride and produce some of the singing playing for which she’s known. She sounded more like herself in the virtuoso showpiece of Sarasate’s “Carmen” — or it simply responded to the hell-for-leather playing better than the Mendelssohn did.

That breakneck quality derives in no small part from Eschenbach, who heightens the music’s excitement with a seat-of-the-pants delivery: You’re not always sure everything is going to come out together. Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus” overture opened with chords so fractured that they actually sounded as if they began with a grace note, though the playing of the piece overall was so amiable that it was hard to resist.

The evening ended with the Strauss “Rosenkavalier” suite that the orchestra last played here in June, just before taking it on tour to South America: In short, they and Eschenbach have gotten it squarely under their belts. It sounded a lot cleaner and more solid this time round — everyone on stage knows what to expect from everyone else in this score, even when the music director, enjoying the moment, kept turning his head over his left shoulder toward the audience, as if inviting them to dance along.

The NSO’s next program, from Oct. 4-6, features Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs.

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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