Music review: Eschenbach shows leadership on keyboard at free Millennium Stage concert

With its bright lights, green rug and a projection of a cloud-pocked blue sky on the back wall, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage looked like the set of a 1960s television special on Saturday evening. What it presented would have been at home in the ’60s, as well, but it was old-fashioned in a good way: a free chamber music recital, given by world-class musicians, to a packed hall.

Christoph Eschenbach has done a lot of things right in his first year as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and Kennedy Center, and this includes giving two of these free public performances in which he takes his place among other musicians in his original role, that of pianist. (The concert from October, with Christian Tetzlaff, can be watched on the Kennedy Center’s Web site.) Free concerts are perhaps more frequent these days, as classical music organizations around the country come to terms with a need to establish their role, once taken for granted, in their communities. But it’s always a treat to find ones of this caliber.

Fitting its diminutive stage setting, the concert presented Eschenbach with two other musicians: one a soloist, the other an NSO principal. With Jennifer Koh, the soloist in the Augusta Read Thomas violin concerto that the orchestra introduced to this country Thursday and played later Saturday night, he offered Beethoven’s first violin and piano concerto, a work that retains the artlessness of Mozartean early classicism, and the second movement of Schumann’s First Violin Sonata in A Minor. With Nicholas Stovall, he offered Schumann’s Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, a set of liedlike melodies.

But it was Eschenbach who held the attention. Hearing and seeing him play piano helps one understand the best things about him as a conductor. Both on the podium and at the keyboard, he is looking for collaboration and spontaneity rather than seeking to impose himself on the performance (eclectic though his views may sometimes be).

On Saturday at the keyboard, he offered a quiet authority, at once fully supportive of the other musicians and so compelling that he was, in spite of himself, the focus at nearly all times. His playing had a liquid tenderness, a way of suspending notes in space so as to allow them to be caressed by the air around them, that neither Koh’s athleticism nor Stovall’s admittedly fluid line (with its beautiful legato evenness from high to low) could quite match. They both sounded ever so slightly brash in comparison to the mellower master.

 
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