NEW YORK — People ask where the National Symphony Orchestra stands in relation to other American orchestras. Saturday night’s concert at Carnegie Hall exemplified it pretty well: It seems to be doing very well, while somehow remaining slightly apart from everyone else, engaged in an orchestral equivalent of parallel play.
The concert was a big deal. It was the NSO’s first concert at Carnegie since 2008 and its first there under its current music director, Christoph Eschenbach. And it was the final concert of the Spring for Music festival, a celebration of American orchestras and contemporary programming. All week long, orchestras large and small from around the country offered American works; the night before the NSO concert, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performed all four of Charles Ives’s symphonies back to back, perhaps the first time the feat has ever been attempted. (Detroit’s music director happens to be the NSO’s former music director, Leonard Slatkin, a stout champion of American music.)
Spring for Music is also about hometown pride. Each orchestra was supposed to bring hometown fans; each fan got a banner in the orchestra’s assigned color to wave at appropriate moments; each concert was preceded by remarks by local luminaries — the Baltimore Symphony was introduced by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. The Buffalo Philharmonic brought more than 1,500 people; the Detroit Symphony musicians draped their chairs with their red banners.
The NSO didn’t seem to be interested in any of this. Although the orchestra has done a lot of American programming over the years — since 1984, the Hechinger Commissioning Fund has been responsible for the creation of more than 60 new works — it opted to offer Spring for Music an all-Soviet program dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, who ended his 17-year tenure as the NSO’s music director almost 20 years ago. This was introduced not by a political figure but by Ted Libbey, the former NPR commentator, who, in lieu of uplifting platitudes about the importance of classical music, told personal anecdotes about “Slava” (Rostropovich’s nickname). There were only around 250 hometown fans in the audience; and onstage, though the women of the orchestra wore bright shawls, there wasn’t a hometown banner in sight. The Kennedy Center, one surmises, is not that interested in playing with others.
You could also say, though, that some of the Spring for Music shtick is a little cheesy, and that the NSO found a way to give a very good concert without toeing the party line. In which case its refusal to join in the game is less about cluelessness than arrogance.
And the concert was good enough to support at least some swagger. The NSO’s administration and players keep telling me how much touring focuses an orchestra and puts the players on the line, and this was borne out here. Hearing the familiar orchestra in an acoustically superior hall emphasized the richness of its sound and the improvement in some key areas — winds and brass! — from its last performance here. And in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the last piece on the program, there was a marked increase in focus and precision from the orchestra’s (already good) performance at the Kennedy Center the week before.