The National Symphony Orchestra had a lot to celebrate at its gala opening Sunday night. There was the orchestra’s 80th birthday, and the Kennedy Center’s 40th. There was the news that Christoph Eschenbach is extending his contract as music director for another two years. There was the announcement that Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein is donating a new organ to the concert hall. And there was, thanks to Eschenbach, the music.
For Eschenbach, music is a constant source of celebration. Whatever you think of his conducting — and opinions range from lukewarm to passionately adoring — there’s no question the man loves music.
The program began with a performance of the Dvorak “Carnival Overture” that was vintage Eschenbach, in good ways and bad: the stop-and-start, herky-jerky quality of the music, the animation and involvement of the playing.
Eschenbach’s other great delight is collaboration: He excels at working with other musicians, and he is able to attract big names to the NSO. The violinist Joshua Bell is not one of his special pets, like Lang Lang or Renee Fleming, but he nonetheless got the full Eschenbach collaborative treatment in the Bruch Violin Concerto: an attentive support so complete that the conductor, giving full attention to the soloist on his left, often kept his back turned on the second violins.
Bell seemed slightly impervious to this treatment, but his performance veneer is so complete that it may simply be hard to get through it. It’s not that he’s inexpressive; rather, he’s self-consciously exquisite. Having resisted his charms in some past performances, I worked equally self-consciously to be seduced by them here, for there’s much to like: the beauty of line, the singing tone, the soap-bubble arc of shimmering rainbow music.
Yet to my ear it stayed slightly precious, evoking a world of flowered greeting cards embossed with doves holding ribbons in their beaks (the way the lines swoop between the notes). I might find it more sincere if it weren’t occasionally marred with flawed intonation, sounding jarring in the context of all the prettiness; as it is, it seems desperately earnest but not very much fun. A better fit was the “Meditation From Massenet’s Thais,” whose gentle sweetness sang out from Bell’s fiddle.
The evening’s other collaborator was Thomas Hampson, a leading operatic baritone and a leading proponent of American song. He appeared with a set of Copland’s “Old American Songs” sung so lustily it made me realize that Hampson has the potential to be one of our genuine crossover artists. He’d have Broadway chops, if he’d let himself.
Having failed, after a rather un-simple rendition of “Simple Gifts,” a nicely straightforward one of “The Little Horses” and two longer sea chanteys, to win enough applause to be able to deliver a spontaneous encore, he set out to woo the audience with “I Bought Me a Cat,” a song that succeeds or fails with the singer’s ability to make creative animal noises. He capped the encore with “Lonely Town,” the evening’s sole and much-deserved nod to Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the “Mass” that opened the Kennedy Center in September 1971.
Finally, in Ravel’s “Bolero,” Eschenbach showed the magnetism that has led him to work so well with this orchestra. As the repeated tune began its hypnotic cycle of steadily loudening iterations, he stood almost stock-still, apparently cueing entrances with glances of his eyes, creating a sense of vulnerability by relinquishing the obvious signs of authority, allowing the players to have their way with him. The orchestra responded with a growing sense of abandon, blowsy and loose, like a party at which people start kicking off their shoes, letting their hair down and breaking into college fight songs.
Gradually, Eschenbach’s head began to move; the baton jabbed down at a viola entrance; and his arms began to join a beat that had built up to the intensity of ocean waves, crashing and crashing again over the auditorium. It was great theater, and the audience, as they should have, loved it.