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The National Symphony Orchestra audience directs its attention to Eschenbach

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; C02

Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony Orchestra's new music director, has a cadre of artists with whom he likes to work. In his first season at the NSO -- which got underway Thursday night at the Kennedy Center with his first regular-season subscription concert -- he is bringing a lot of these artists to Washington.

One is the talented German composer Matthias Pintscher -- and one of Eschenbach's favorite pieces by Pintscher is "Hérodiade-Fragmente" (1999) for soprano and orchestra. Eschenbach gave this piece its Carnegie Hall premiere in 2004 and took it on tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra last year. In Europe, where Pintscher is highly regarded, Eschenbach got much praise for doing it, so he might not have realized quite the effect this 25-minute stretch of postmodernist intensity -- a piece that's very good, but not very easy -- could have on an audience waiting to see what to expect from its new hire.

More power to him for doing it.

Eschenbach started the evening with a warm spoken greeting to the audience, averring that "the art of today is as important as the air of today that we breathe." It's a fine credo, and "Hérodiade-Fragmente" is a fine piece. A setting of excerpted texts by Mallarmé, it blends the biblical figures of Salome and her mother, Herodias, into a single woman, looking into a mirror, working herself into a frenzy of such dissipation that her voice, at times, brings her to the cusp of silence. The orchestra acts as a series of shifting surfaces, mirroring her voice and the notes she sings, before sliding away into spasmodic outbreaks, quickly reined in. The whole work is like a white surface across which pieces of a picture have been distributed to form an attenuated collage.

It's a beautifully crafted piece, without being cold or theoretical; you can hear the flat reflective surfaces of the mirrors, and yet the sounds retain the warmth of genuine emotion. Marisol Montalvo, the soprano who took it on, is another Eschenbach favorite, and with reason: She has the musical chops to bring off this difficult piece, and the tessitura to reach the stratosphere of the high notes, where the score kept her much of the time.

The piece even created a smart synchronicity, intentionally or not, with another major Washington institution: Exactly one week later, the Washington National Opera will present another "Salome," the one by Richard Strauss. Both pieces hark back not only to a common source, but also a similar period, in that Pintscher's music sounds as if it has its roots in the early 20th century -- the expressive atonality of some of Schoenberg's vocal writing. But Pintscher, unlike Schoenberg or Strauss (whose "Salome" was banned from the Met stage after a single performance), is liberated from the need to shock; its language is freighted with emotion, but benign toward its listeners -- those, at least, willing to meet it halfway.

Another reason to program the piece, however, is that it fits well on a program with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a work that demands either a whole evening to itself or something strong but shortish as a counterbalance. (Eschenbach paired the two works, in fact, on the aforementioned Philadelphia tour.) Thursday night, the Beethoven represented the conductor's compact with the audience: You sit through my modern piece and I'll try to knock your socks off with the Ninth.

From the performance, one might infer that the Pintscher took a lot of the orchestra's rehearsal time. In contrast to the assurance of the "Hérodiade-Fragmente," the Beethoven had a sloppy, seat-of-the-pants excitement. Eschenbach is said by many to be a great Mahler conductor, and he conducted Beethoven as if it were Mahler: It was episodic, filled with moments of great beauty and moments of near-hysteria. It wasn't very specific, though, or very clean. The opening of the second movement, rather than a crisp fugue, was muddy; the close of the first movement anticlimactic. And the thunderclap that opens the fourth movement didn't quite come off, in part because there wasn't a lot of dynamic contrast from one movement to another, and in part because the chord wasn't quite together.

What Eschenbach does well is emotion. It was as if he were seeking something beyond these mere technical details. There were certainly moments of pure beauty: The opening of the third movement stretched out like a golden summer, luxuriant and lovely. It spun out into a narrative that picked up a lot of drive from the fact that there was some uncertainty about where the beat was going to fall; rather than relaxing into the security of regularity, you were pulled along to see what happened next.

But there's no resisting the end of the fourth movement. John Relyea gave a satisfyingly stentorian opening to the vocal culmination, supported by attractive soloists (the light but game Montalvo, the warm mezzo Yvonne Naef and the tenor Nikolai Schukoff, light for the role but far less forced than he was this spring in the Verdi Requiem). The wall of sound provided by the Choral Arts Society delivered the requisite thrill.

By the end, the audience was fully ready to embrace its new music director, quirks and all.

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