By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; C10
Two pianists took the keyboard on Saturday night. Sitting side by side at a massive Steinway, Christoph Eschenbach, the new music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and Lang Lang, the superstar pianist from China, played two movements from Debussy's "Petite Suite," the first one tender, the second antic, with leaps of finger and wrist that set the audience giggling.
The performance was an encore at the National Symphony Orchestra's season-opening gala at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. It signaled some new beginnings.
For one: The new music director of the NSO and the Kennedy Center can make music in a number of ways with his orchestra and soloists. Live chamber music is slated to become an occasional part of the "AfterWords" post-concert discussion sessions after Eschenbach's performances (starting Oct. 7), and on Oct. 8 he will join the violinist Christian Tetzlaff and some NSO musicians in a free, all-Beethoven concert at the Millennium Stage. For another: The new conductor comes with a roster of big-name friends. Lang Lang is one; another is the soprano Renée Fleming, who also performed at the gala, and who also gave an encore, of Strauss's tear-jerking "Morgen," with Eschenbach at the piano,
For a third: The most exciting part of the evening, musically, involved the piano. It's hard to tell how to interpret that one.
Galas are about festivity and fun. With all of the delights offered on Saturday night, one should be charitable about the fact that the musicmaking itself was a little uneven. Was part of it opening-night nerves? Strauss's "Four Last Songs" is a veritable calling-card for Fleming, but on Saturday it fell curiously flat.
The soprano drew a laugh at her entrance when she did a stagy double-take upon seeing that the concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, was wearing a green gown almost identical in shade to her own; she then (good-naturedly) mimed storming off stage in a huff. But the first song, "Frühling," lacked sparkle. Fleming sang with commitment and honesty but seemed a little off her game. Even in the beautiful arcing phrases of the third song, "Beim Schlafengehen," where her voice followed the lead of Bar-Josef's violin, her voice seemed not quite centered, a little hard to hear (though she hit her stride in her first-half encore, Strauss's orchestral song "Cäcilie"). Eschenbach, perhaps, is still getting to know the acoustic properties of this hall; certainly the balances needed work.
Playing with a lot of heart, the orchestra sounded happy to have him. But the musicians didn't always sound sure where he wanted them to go. Music by the other Strauss, Johann Jr., opened the two halves of the program -- "Fledermaus" to start, the "Kaiserwalzer" after intermission -- and Eschenbach approached the pieces with looseness and the appearance of fun. But his beat was a little too loose, and his approach so episodic that each piece was full of starts and stops, momentary regroupings as the orchestra found its way into the next section, making each piece seem a little longer than need be and less sparkly than it might. Luminous, though, was the solo playing of David Hardy, the NSO's principal cellist, in the "Kaiserwalzer." He played with such melting beauty that time stopped.
Out came Lang Lang, known for his showmanship as well as for his brilliance, and he carried the day with a bravura performance of the Liszt concerto. Lang Lang's deficits can include an overabundance of extraneous gestures that seemed designed to communicate how much the music means to him. His strengths include one of the greatest piano techniques in the world. He was showing his strengths on Saturday: few gestures, lots of remarkable playing of a piece that is both showy and poetical. It was a pleasure to listen to him, and Eschenbach, in the role of collaborator (at which he excels), supported, accompanied, and sometimes -- in the cadenza -- simply listened along with everyone else.
The audience received it all with the enthusiasm of a small-town crowd welcoming someone from the big world outside. David Rubenstein, the Kennedy Center's chairman (who has won a fund of goodwill by donating $10 million to the center, including $5 million specifically earmarked for the NSO), took the stage after intermission like a local mayor, individually thanking the many people involved in the proceedings, and bringing Eschenbach out onstage for another, wholly extraneous, round of applause.
Message to Eschenbach: We're glad to have you. Now show us your stuff. The regular season starts on Thursday with a new work by Matthias Pintscher and Beethoven's Ninth, and that's when Eschenbach's tenure can really be said to begin.