Having missed the NSO’s performance of the concerto the preceding Friday in Washington, I was happily surprised to find it such a substantive work, and equally happy to hear it in the able hands of David Aaron Carpenter. Eschenbach tends to like very expressive soloists, and Carpenter, long and lean as a modern-day Paganini, fits the type, but to judge from my colleague Robert Battey’s review of his Washington performance, he must have toned down his physical mannerisms considerably for this Carnegie Hall outing. Apart from some soulful gazes heavenward in the long, slow final movement, he didn’t offer any noteworthy excesses. What he did offer was some very strong playing that helped bring alive a potentially difficult work.
The Detroit Symphony, the night before, offered some up-and-down playing of four up-and-down symphonies. Before the performance, Slatkin said, in print, that he didn’t care for Ives’s First, and you could certainly tell from the way he played it; the symphony is the most conventional and arguably the easiest of the four, but the orchestra sounded like amateurs, as if the conductor’s goal was simply to get through it at all. The readings got progressively better through the concise, hymn-studded Third to the ebullient Fourth, which Slatkin dissected a bit for the audience in engaging podium remarks before plunging in. He is no more precise than he was in Washington, and the NSO sounded quite a lot better by comparison, but the DSO offered an engagingly can-do spirit, particularly for an ensemble still recovering from a strike that many people thought might snuff it out altogether.
Overall, the week left a warm impression, although a wistful one: All this unconventional programming has not sparked huge ticket sales, even at $25 a pop, or found future funders, and the festival’s 2014 iteration will be its last.
As for the NSO, the question of how it wants to position itself remains open. It’s an ongoing debate how far an ensemble with the word “national” in its name should represent the music of its own country. Eschenbach was certainly able to play American music with some of his past orchestras — indeed, he led the world premiere of the Jennifer Higdon concerto “4-3” that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played on its Spring for Music program last Monday night. But at the NSO, Peter Lieberson’s tribute to JFK is his sole noteworthy nod in this direction. Does it matter?
“We’ve been a great Russian orchestra [under Rostropovich],” Rita Shapiro, the NSO’s executive director, said to me in a phone interview a few weeks ago. “We’ve been a great American-focused orchestra [under Slatkin]. Christoph is much more of a polymath.”
It remains to be seen what kind of identity this chameleon-like orchestra will take on next. But it’s striking that, at this festival, it chose to define itself by looking back rather than ahead, and abroad rather than home.