The bulk of Christoph Eschenbach’s 2013-14 engagements with “his” National Symphony Orchestra have been concentrated in the early months of this year — meaning that local audiences have gotten to hear him a lot lately. I can’t say, however, that I feel my acquaintanceship with his art has particularly deepened over this time.
Thursday night’s concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall did nothing to add to it.
There have been high points, certainly: His collaborations with high-profile soloists were one of his acknowledged strengths long before he took over the NSO in 2010, and these soloists have been an adornment to the city and the orchestra. Matthias Goerne’s recent “Die Schoene Muellerin” is one example, and Christian Tetzlaff’s appearance on Thursday’s program in Jörg Widmann’s violin concerto is another. And you could argue that the real highlights of this season are still ahead, with the orchestra’s two-barreled salute to the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Richard Strauss, including Renée Fleming in a one-night-only “Rosenkavalier” on March 8.
But the potential for deep emotional connection with the music and the orchestra that was another of the hopes for his tenure is not always being fulfilled — certainly not by the first and second Beethoven symphonies that flanked the Widmann concerto Thursday night.
Why be negative? It is easy, you might say, to focus on what was good about this glass-half-full kind of concert. At the NSO, Eschenbach has admirably championed Widmann, a major young German composer (he’s in his early 40s) who doesn’t have the same level of name recognition in the States as he enjoys in Europe, and who is well worth hearing more of. He was last heard with the NSO two years ago in a double role, as composer of one piece and clarinet soloist in another. This time, he was present only in spirit, but the violin concerto he wrote for Christian Tetzlaff was a fine ambassador. It’s a knockout, and it fits the brilliant Tetzlaff like a glove.
Tetzlaff used to be a young violinist who cultivated the austere visual manner of a 1930s schoolboy, looking older than his years. Now in his mid-40s, he seems to have shed the close-cropped hair and dark-framed glasses, and his mop of sandy hair atop his slight frame made him look about 15 years old. The continued brilliance of his playing, however, was showcased by Widmann’s score, which managed to be at once cerebral and Romantic, filled with thoughtful probings of sound and idea, but never losing the sense of a singing through-line — from the throaty rich low-string opening, for unaccompanied violin, through to the hard-edged, ear-slicing passages at the very top of the E string.
The solo line was augmented and supported by individual voices of the orchestra, building up to tremendous power but without simply piling on. The music was intense, but never muddy or thick. The work’s climax, indeed, is an abrupt pause during which everything was stopped in its tracks by the insistence of Eschenbach’s upheld left hand. That even the audience stayed mouse-silent until Eschenbach allowed the music to start again says a lot for the rhetorical shape of the piece, and for how the musicians performed it, letting everyone know that it clearly wasn’t over.
That was the best side of Eschenbach. A less good side was on display in the Beethoven first symphony, in particular. During Eschenbach’s first couple of seasons, I maintained that nothing was ever routine with him, but it has started to become clear that there’s a certain set pattern to his manifestations of intensity. He conducts everything so energetically, with such exaggerated care in solo passages and so much flailing of the baton in ensembles, that lighter passages — like the second movement of the first symphony — grow heavy and a little plodding.
And he is so focused on linking one movement to another, on easing transitions, that he sometimes smooths out critical differences. The start of the fourth movement of the second symphony can be dyspeptic, abrupt, even flatulent (Beethoven himself supposedly said that it was a depiction of his own gastric woes). Here, it sounded smooth and anodyne. I don’t get a sense, overall, of insightful music-making, and I no longer have the sense, as I did in earlier seasons, that the orchestra and conductor are excited by each other — which leaves us all the more reliant on the highlights.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday evening.