The National Symphony Orchestra has had several music directors — including its current one, Christoph Eschenbach — who were performers before they were conductors. If we can embrace a cellist-conductor, or a pianist-conductor, then a composer-conductor shouldn’t be an anomaly.
Yet artists who do more than one thing are often dogged by the suspicion that they are not as good at one thing as they are at the other. Matthias Pintscher, 44, is one of Germany’s leading and most prolific composers. So it was striking on Thursday night, when he made his debut with the NSO, to see that he can also hold his own when he conducts.
Pintscher has already demonstrated his conducting prowess in this region, having led, for instance, a concert at the National Orchestral Institute in 2011, which I didn’t attend but which according to some who did was a highlight of that year. Still, the NSO’s model of a composer-conductor is John Adams, who is definitely a composer first.
Adams, in some of his past NSO appearances, has filled a quasi-curatorial function, juxtaposing contemporary music and works of personal significance in programs he helped assemble. Pintscher, by contrast, led a more straightforward subscription concert of non-contemporary French works, with a suite from Fauré’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” in the first half and Ravel’s complete “Daphnis et Chloé” in the second half, albeit with a violin concerto of his own, called “Mar’eh,” between the two.
Eschenbach, certainly, holds Pintscher in high regard. He began the first subscription program of his NSO tenure with the composer’s 25-minute “Herodiade-Fragmente,” sending a signal about his commitment to new music that he hasn’t quite followed through on. Pintscher is still not that well-known in Washington, though, and his program wasn’t calculated to draw audiences; the auditorium was not well-filled. Those who attended were rewarded with an intriguing evening in which the composer and conductor seemed to vie with each other for attention: the composer as creator of a major work, the conductor as someone with the ability to lead a professional orchestra in challenging repertoire. It’s sad, but on some level true, that in order to prove himself, a composer-conductor like Pintscher has to show that he can do well in works from the canon, rather than treating the audience to a program of more unusual pieces (a la John Adams or Oliver Knussen).
The concerto was not, in fact, the highlight of the program, despite a committed performance from Karen Gomyo, who bravely made her debut with the orchestra in this unfamiliar work. Hearing it, to me, underlined the challenges that large-scale pieces can pose to young composers: The piece was so assiduously big and earnest, juxtaposing different timbres and colors — little saffron-threads of breathy sound, filled with harmonics and double-tonguings — that it lacked some of the quality of acute observation and engagement that I got from the work in, for example, a composer portrait devoted to Pintscher at the Phillips Collection in 2012. It’s an able and impressive piece, sending Gomyo, who is capable of fine sound, fingering in nervous skitters across the strings and finally dying out with the windy sound of tuneless breath, a bow scraping not strings, but the wood of the violin. But I was less taken with it than I’ve been with other Pintscher pieces, however glad I was that the orchestra committed to showcasing the work of an important artist.
Opening with the Fauré could be taken as a sign of seriousness as well. It’s an unflashy and delicate piece, unlike the bombastic curtain-raisers of tradition, and Pintscher led it with graceful restraint. It was the “Daphnis et Chloé” that really got my attention, and that, in part, because of its moments of pure, earthy fun. Ravel’s ballet is long, filled (as is the composer’s wont) with solo textures that reflected off Pintscher’s music, and the NSO’s winds still sound as if they’re struggling in places. But Pintscher dug into the big moments with a kind of down-to-earth delight.
Deserving of praise was the Washington Master Chorale, which was only founded in 2010 and which mustered a warm sound in the choral parts that helped unify this piece and make it a highlight of the evening.
Still: The orchestra world is looking for new solutions and new models. In an ideal world, when someone arrives onstage who has something to say about music, it would be nice to explore the new, rather than test them, yet again, on their mastery of the old.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.