Weak vocal soloists mar NSO's, Washington Chorus's Verdi Requiem

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; C03

A bride who wants to look beautiful, they say, should pick ugly bridesmaids.

That adage worked for the conductor Christoph Eschenbach at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night. He led the National Symphony Orchestra in a Verdi Requiem that featured such an awful quartet of vocal soloists that he could only look better by comparison.

Eschenbach was having something very like a wedding night: For the first time since being named the NSO's next music director -- and the last time till he officially assumes the title in the fall -- he led his new orchestra in a regular-season concert. His choice of piece, the Verdi Requiem, is frequently used for ceremonial occasions -- if not quite celebratory, it's eminently rousing and it grapples with issues of life and, mainly, death.

There was hope and ardor to his beginning. Eschenbach is an emotional conductor rather than a technical one. In choosing a piece so laden with feeling, he was playing to his strengths, at least in this regard.

At the opening, he kept the cellos hushed to the very edge of audibility (it's a tribute to the NSO cellists that they brought it off), which let him gradually build the volume and tension to great cresting breakers of sound. The orchestra responded by putting its heart into the music, and the Washington Chorus (which did its own Verdi Requiem last April) sang reliably and honorably.

But Eschenbach followed the piece's emotional contours at the expense of its structure. The performance was so spiritual that it sometimes floated off into the heavens, losing its anchor to the ground -- that is, its rhythmic pulse. The phrases kept battering against the confines of their proper tempos, now fast, now slow, so that orchestra and soloists sometimes had trouble staying together. It would be nice to blame it all on the soloists, but it wasn't all their fault.

A lot was their fault, though. In this chorus-heavy city, the Requiem is usually done by somebody at least once a season. But even in an age that suffers a lack of good Verdi singers, the piece is seldom heard with such bad soloists. Evgeny Nikitin, the bass, was the least offensive. His voice was at least the right size for the part, but he sang with such unvaried color, squeezing out a harsh, flat sound, utterly disregarding the pronunciation of the Italian vowels, and coming in so often under the pitch, that he didn't give much enjoyment.

Nikolai Schukoff, the tenor, was described in his biography as a lyric tenor who "has since developed towards heavier roles"; he sounded (when one could hear him) like a lyric tenor who is in the process of pushing his voice toward strain and collapse.

Mihoko Fujimura offered a ramrod-straight, echoey mezzo-soprano with considerable range, but no legato line. That is, instead of playing her voice like a violin, she tended to break her phrases at ill-chosen moments (like the end of the otherwise successful opening of the "Lux aeterna"), or failed to support her sound.

Soprano Twyla Robinson, by contrast, coquetted shamelessly with her own lines, breaking the phrases where it pleased her, swooping up or hauling off to take aim at a high note that her voice was too slender to deliver adequately -- and showing blatant disregard for the written rhythms in what felt like defacement of the music rather than mere haplessness.

It was hard for the orchestra to make up for this glaring deficit no matter how well it played, and the instability of the whole was disquieting. Still, the intensity of the strong moments, like the roar and drum-kick of Judgment Day, with its raucous trumpets kept offstage except for one grouping in an upper balcony, showed a commitment that is a good thing to have at the start of what one hopes will be a beautiful relationship.

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