MUSIC review

Showcasing the NSO 'family'

FOCUSED PRESENCE: First-season music director Christoph Eschenbach always seems to be completely in the moment.
FOCUSED PRESENCE: First-season music director Christoph Eschenbach always seems to be completely in the moment. (Margot Ingoldsby Schulman)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011

It was family night Thursday at the National Symphony Orchestra. That is to say, the orchestra took center stage under the baton of its music director, Christoph Eschenbach, with soloists from within the group's ranks. And because Eschenbach is still in his first season, the event was at once a showcase for the orchestra and a getting-to-know-you session.

Family night suits Eschenbach very well. He clearly likes to make music collaboratively. That is one reason some musicians adore him (and most of the NSO players appear to fall into this category). Rather than strictly laying down the law with his baton, he rolls up his sleeves and jumps into the pool with the other musicians onstage, letting things grow and ebb and flow around him.

And he wants every phrase to have significance. In the first of Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra - which the NSO last played when Eschenbach came here as a guest conductor in 1989 - he led the players from a barely audible rumble, more felt than heard, like a distant passing train, to a crashing, oceanic peak, and back down again, setting the tone for a piece of big gestures and strong feelings.

It's an organic approach, and for some players, an empowering one. For the listener, what comes across are big but blunt gestures; the musical statements are apparent, but without the precision of diction that comes from cleaner playing. Time and again a big phrase in the brass, for instance, would fall a little flat because it wasn't quite directed.

In Beethoven's Triple Concerto, the NSO's excellent principal cellist, David Hardy, briefly lost his edge in a solo entrance in the second movement when he didn't quite seem able to find the conductor's beat. That kind of detail is essential to some listeners and mere nitpicking to others, and there's no question that Eschenbach brings to the podium a kind of animation and excitement.

I don't at all mean to slam Hardy; he is a quiet ambassador of the orchestra, and one whom it's a pleasure to listen to. All three soloists in the Triple Concerto certainly did the NSO full credit. Hardy, Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster, and Lambert Orkis, the pianist, are frequent chamber-music partners in the Kennedy Center Chamber Players, and brought a sense of this unity to the performance. Bar-Josef displayed her fresh and singing violin tone; Hardy was generally strong; and Orkis played with light assurance while Eschenbach arced his body over him, in the second movement, as if starting an intimate conversation - a kind of dialogue with the soloist that this conductor particularly seems to enjoy. This piece exists mainly as a showcase for performers; as a piece, it is never quite as satisfying as I would like, but it got a very nice performance.

The real touchstone, though, was the Beethoven Fifth, which showed a few of Eschenbach's and the orchestra's weaknesses and many of their considerable strengths.

You're not going to get crisp playing from Eschenbach and the NSO at this point, whether or not the conductor proves to have the orchestra-building skills to develop tighter entrances and articulations over time. And you're not going to get calculated shaping of a piece: Eschenbach always seems to be completely in the moment so that the piece progresses from one episode to another. That is a characteristic and perhaps a virtue of his playing - it certainly gave Thursday's performance a lot of passionate intensity, and moments of inspired illumination. And the final movement was an outpouring of joy.

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