Eschenbach, Mozart, Mahler and the NSO -- getting along famously

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010

There's plenty of excitement at the National Symphony Orchestra these days. The musicians sound excited. Audiences sound excited. Christoph Eschenbach is in the house, and spirits are high.

On Thursday night, after a visa glitch prevented the contralto Nathalie Stutzmann from arriving for her scheduled "Kindertotenlieder," it was just Eschenbach and the orchestra, in Mozart and Mahler. And to judge from the reception, that was just fine with everybody present.

There's a certain intimacy to a concert of a music director and his orchestra, without a soloist present. It was a nice wrap-up to what one might term the Eschenbach inaugural festivities that have been taking place at the Kennedy Center for the past three weeks. After this program (which repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.), the conductor is off for another spate of globe-trotting, including a production of Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler" in Paris with the baritone Matthias Goerne. His next NSO concerts will be in January.

So the two symphonies he led were a nice culmination of what seems to have been, to all concerned, a very rosy beginning.

Stutzmann's absence made the evening all the rosier, in that the tenor of the program shifted from Mahlerian angst (Songs on the Death of Children -- "Kindertotenlieder" -- are hardly mood-lifters) to sweetness and light. In lieu of the Mahler, Eschenbach offered Mozart's Symphony No. 34, the last of his Salzburg symphonies -- familiar and fresh and not heard often from an orchestra that was rather underfed in the Mozart department under Leonard Slatkin. The NSO last played this piece in 1986, and they certainly seemed to enjoy encountering it again Thursday night. Eschenbach's Mozart is healthy and notably non-neurotic, and the symphony was a buoyant bonbon, rushing along in three brief movements, dancing in an ebullient conclusion.

Instead of spotlighting despair, the evening spotlighted a number of the NSO's solo players. I've said before that Eschenbach has an affinity for Mahler -- or for any big, episodic piece that allows a lot of emotional variety. At the NSO so far, he's shown that his strengths are finding the beauty and poetry in individual moments, and probing the emotional contours of the music. His approach is about feeling and aesthetics, rather than about technology and architecture; his Mahler was anything but clinical. To my ear, he could have set up its big moments more satisfyingly. But he couldn't have done much better at clearing spaces around solo instruments so that a timpani line in the first movement emerged in crystalline darkness, or at stopping time in the second movement so that the cellos floated in clean space, suddenly freed from gravity in an atmosphere of their own.

Eschenbach hears a lot, and he seems to want to hear it freshly. All the instruments seemed emancipated in this Mahler, sometimes to better effect than others. Middle voices rose so that a main theme in the second movement was half-submerged. The first movement, in its anguish, was whipped into a chaotic frenzy. Sometimes elements in ensemble passages sounded isolated even when they were theoretically coming together.

I think that is part of how Eschenbach explores the contours of familiar music. It's a subjective approach, and it gives rise to subjective reactions. Those who thrill to the sharp edges and tension of hair-trigger precision might be less susceptible to it than those who want music simply to stir them. To my ear, some long sustained passages, even the famous Adagietto, were less moving than some of the poetic moments when the conductor seemed to draw telling quirks and details from a player or a section. At the end, though, there was no question that he had led the piece from darkness back into the light.

And the audience basked there right along with him.

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