Iván Fischer concludes NSO tenure with program playing to both their strengths

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010

There's a lot of debate about what constitutes the ideal orchestral conductor. Some prefer the pioneer: a musical thinker who champions living composers and unusual projects -- such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, the former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Others favor those who bring new energy to established tradition: Take Manfred Honeck and Jaap van Zweden, the new and much-talked-about music directors of Pittsburgh and Dallas.

Iván Fischer, who is concluding his two-year tenure as principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend, is of the latter camp: European, with a restless intelligence, but with both feet planted firmly in the traditional repertory. His programs with the NSO have shown range, curiosity and thought -- an ostensibly early-music approach to Bach; music from his native Hungary; a touch of opera -- but they haven't shown much interest in the present day. His last concerts in office show him in what's been his best light in the past two seasons: alone with the orchestra, without soloists, in popular core repertory.

The final program (which will repeat Saturday at 8 p.m.), all Russian, has broad appeal for orchestra lovers. It opens with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," big and colorful and awfully pretty, rife with instrumental solos, and ends with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," a once-scandalous and seemingly unplayable piece that's turned into a cornerstone of the canon, firmly rooted in the ears, fingers and hearts of musicians and audiences. It was a showy program, even a showoff one. As if to underline the point, Fischer conducted the first piece from a pocket score, and the second piece, whose rhythms are fiendishly difficult and constantly changing, from memory.

"Scheherazade" is not an obvious vehicle for a conductor to show off his smarts: It's all about pretty and exotic, luxuriating in orchestral sounds. It's an odd fit for Fischer, who is not much of a luxuriator. His is a mind that seizes on things with curiosity, examines them, leaps on to the next thing: It's how he is in conversation, and it's the way he makes music. There couldn't be more of a contrast to, say, Gustavo Dudamel, who has a sensual streak a mile wide; Fischer, by contrast, is a quirky experimenter. Perhaps the reason he didn't have a closer relationship to the NSO is that the NSO is an orchestra conditioned to like the big emotions, the heart on the sleeve: This was the approach of Mstislav Rostropovich, whom old hands in the orchestra still speak of in adoring tones, and it has often been the approach of Christoph Eschenbach, whose arrival in the fall the orchestra is eagerly awaiting.

But Fischer and the orchestra weren't quite a match. Certainly Friday afternoon's performance showed some of their best sides, particularly when it came to Fischer's ferocious energy, which found a response in biting bass chords in the "Rite," or in the way Dotian Levalier attacked her harp solo in the second movement of "Scheherazade," asserting her instrument over a gentle wash of violins before pulling back into restraint. Fischer also has a quality of grace, a flair for the kind of gentle dance he found in the third movement of "Scheherazade"; his tendency to take very fast tempos abates enough, in this lyrical mode, to allow a way in to the music's propulsive energy. Like many conductors who pride themselves on their intellect, Fischer is actually pretty instinctive in his musicmaking; but the NSO didn't seem to trust him enough to want to accompany him through his changes of mood. Counterbalancing the high points of visceral excitement on Friday were passages that seemed mechanical, no more than feats of execution -- from him and from the players.

The orchestra and Fischer may have had too little time together to establish any real bond: five or six programs a season. Still, it was clear that Fischer didn't end up at the NSO with anything like the rapport he has with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which he founded and has led for the past 25 years, and with which he gives really exciting performances. Relationships are unpredictable, and matches that look good on paper don't always have a spark; Fischer, evidently, wasn't the ideal leader for the NSO. Still, this was a nice, stirring way for the orchestra and Fischer to end their time together, with a program that got everyone's blood moving, and went through the motions with a will and aplomb that led, at the end, to ovations.

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