Violinist Gidon Kremer performed a concerto by Mieczyslaw Weinberg at “A Salute to Slava.” (Angie Kremer Photography)

When you read the word “Salute” on an orchestra program, you tend to think of fanfares and shorter tribute pieces and celebrations. “A Salute to Slava,” which the National Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach presented Thursday night, offered none of those things. The program was one of four this season commemorating the late Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich, the cellist and conductor and for 17 years music director of the NSO, on what would have been his 90th birthday. It paid homage to his history and tastes with two big, uncompromising works: Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s little-known violin concerto and Shostakovich’s massive, searing 8th Symphony, which is — thanks to Rostropovich and his friendship with Shostakovich — in the orchestra’s DNA. It was a big, long, involved evening that was, if not in a spirit of celebration, very much in the spirit of Rostropovich.

Weinberg, a younger friend and contemporary of Shostakovich, is not a well-known name in the West, although the striking success of his 1968 Holocaust opera, “The Passenger” — after it finally saw its first staged production in 2010 — seems to be changing that. Violinist Gidon Kremer is one of the composer’s most ardent champions; he and his ensemble Kremerata Baltica have just released a recording of Weinberg’s chamber symphonies and the piano quintet on ECM in time for his 70th birthday. Kremer arrived at the NSO as the soloist in a concerto by a composer whose music the NSO had never played before (though Pro Musica Hebraica did present an evening focused on his chamber music at the Kennedy Center in 2008). 

The concerto is a big, involved, four-movement piece that sends the violin scurrying across the strings from the first bars and barely lets it go. Weinberg’s writing here is like a somewhat romanticized Shostakovich, with sections of angular energy juxtaposed with big opulent melodies, like the tutti section at the start of the third movement, thick and bittersweet as molasses. Kremer’s playing, though, had a querulous thinness to it that gave a sense of randomness to some of the violin’s meanderings in tight circles up and down the strings and a sense of sameness to four movements that are not really all that similar. There was no questioning his commitment to the music, but his performance seemed insular, the private thoughts of someone who was not fully invested in bringing them across to the public. It would be nice to hear the orchestra do it again with a more extroverted, full-toned soloist, though full credit to everyone for offering us this beautiful and unfamiliar work. Kremer played a brief encore by the same composer, who, he said, “still has to be discovered.” 

Eschenbach and Rostropovich have little in common on the surface, and yet a number of similarities: Both were virtuoso performers who turned to conducting; both were NSO music directors; and both are, in very different ways, very emotional conductors. Rostropovich wore his heart on his sleeve, by all accounts; Eschenbach saves his emotion for the stage. There, though, he can be positively effusive and thus very effective in a piece this big and this involved, leading the orchestra into some of the biggest climaxes I have ever heard, with crashes of sound like great breakers across the stage. He also led it in some of the slowest playing I have heard from them; the piece, always over an hour, took nearly an hour and a quarter, and the harrowing and involving journey sometimes nearly halted, particularly at the end as the music wound its way down into silence. Long it was, but it was a vital performance, and the orchestra played with a kind of ferocity that they do not always exhibit. This symphony is going with the NSO on their brief tour to Russia in March, continuing the theme of the evening: long journey, fitting tribute. 

The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8.