NSO review: Eschenbach conducts Webern, Mahler and Golijov

The National Symphony Orchestra’s concert with Christoph Eschenbach on Thursday night was a nice piece of programming and an abject failure of marketing.

On the progamming side, it offered three pieces of beautiful, romantic, engaging music. On the marketing side, it offered a piece by Anton Webern and a contemporary work — enough to make your average orchestra audience stay well away.

There appeared to be a couple of high school classes in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, as well as the regular subscription audience: a hopeful sign for the future, perhaps, but also usually an indicator that ticket sales have not been strong — and that tickets are going cheap to students as a result.

Happily, it was a concert that seemed to have the potential to appeal to a new audience, filled with music that was at once attractive, impressive and full of content, both coordinating and contrasting — without any of the anodyne quality that some of the canonical works might seem to have for a beginner. (I refer to the quality that leads people to say that they like to play Mozart as background music.)

The Webern piece was “Im Sommerwind,” a work that exudes the thick humidity of late romanticism, written before Webern had begun paring away his compositional style to find the hard, true, small forms, like Cycladic carvings, that lay within. And the so-called contemporary piece, “She Was Here,” by Osvaldo Golijov, really should have been jointly credited to Franz Schubert: It’s what you might call Golijov’s tracing of four Schubert songs, setting “Nacht und Traume” and three other fairly familiar pieces in a new but complementary bed of orchestration.

The whole thing wrapped up with Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, one of the composer’s shortest and perhaps among his most approachable, which starts with the jingle of sleigh bells and ends with a soprano in the guise of an overgrown boy, lustily outlining the charms of a rather eccentric afterlife in a song called “Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life).” Taken together, it was a concert rife with imagery and evocation, and the evening flew by.

To my ear, it was also one of Eschenbach’s best outings with the NSO to date — specifically the Mahler, which showed a comfortable insouciance and even crispness that was tremendously engaging.

It took a little while for the concert to get to that point; the Webern partook of what one might call the conductor’s Capital Letter style, in which Feelings are writ large but the details can come off shakily. There was a slight tentative quality to the wind and brass solos toward the beginning of this tone poem, and the jaunty, sunny theme that sparkles through the middle of the piece wasn’t as rakish as it might have been.

Listening to this piece, in particular, it struck me that one reason musicians love Eschenbach — and I sometimes have reservations about him — is that his collaborative approach to musicmaking means that he doesn’t always know exactly where he’s going and enjoys the process of finding out along the way. It’s not that he doesn’t have the piece under control — that, he always does — but that he is not a conductor who dictates to the orchestra what exactly they should be doing at every given moment.

For musicians, that freedom can be exhilarating; for a listener, it can sound murky, resulting in an emotional bluntness that here sometimes threatened to collide with Webern’s specificity.

One reason the Mahler worked is that Eschenbach came to it with a very particular approach. He led with an informality and directness that made this big symphony seem downright intimate. The opening, in particular, was taut and crisp, with the orchestra “on” in a way that it doesn’t always manage. And if the playing wasn’t consistently up to this standard, it generally had a kind of ebullience.

This work is getting quite a lot of play around town in this Mahler anniversary year, but the NSO had not done it since 2003, and it made a good case for itself as top dog in town with this reading.

Dawn Upshaw was the soprano soloist; “She Was Here” is the sixth work Golijov has written for her. Upshaw excels at a particular kind of angelic, radiant, sexless sound that was highlighted in both the works she sang.

I used to have reservations about her vocal limits and her wide-eyed, Ivory-girl mien, and it took me some time to learn to understand and appreciate the artistry and the communicative gift that went along with those quirks. She’s an artist who’s so immediately recognizable that it was startling to see her come out, not with the blond pixie coiffure but with long brown hair, in an eclectic pants-and-muumuu outfit that looked as if it had been assembled by a college student. But if the visuals required some adjustment, the sound and conviction were still there.

The Golijov piece is another nice illustration of the composer’s ability while we wait for his next major work; Upshaw did it credit, and gave a boy-soprano flavor to the final movement of the Mahler that fit right in with Eschenbach’s boyish, Haydnesque performance.

The program repeats Friday afternoon and Saturday evening.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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